Excerpt, The Long Thirst
                                a novel by C. A. Willis


     ... I was born from emptiness and developed in non-being. What gives me life

    is the spirit; what kills me is the mind.


             The Xisheng Jing


Chacharabai had lived in the village from the time of her first young husband’s death, when she was nearly a child herself, until her breasts hung with the needs of her own children and long past. She was there through the marriage to her second husband, and his death, and until her breasts dried with the years and hung loosely in her sari like the fleshy stalks of plants deprived too long of nourishing water. And she had accepted her lot without complaint, the scenes of her life twirling before her eyes like the spinning shreds of prayer flags on currents of the wind, each event of her many years swaying evenly beside the rest, none standing out above the others—except for one. And this was the one thing that still roused her from her mat every morning and gave her a reason to continue through the days, plodding through the necessities. It was the one thing that was not finished: She was waiting for the return of her son, Rastumji, just as she had been waiting the long twenty-five years since the day he had died.

She was as sure today that he would be back as she had been on that day he had oozed out the last drop of moisture in his shrinking body, in a stream of heavy, black liquid, before shuddering into stillness, nearly turning to dust before her grieving eyes. And she spent her days waiting, not sure when or in what form he would reappear, but determined with a stubbornness settled deep in her bowels that she would live to greet him on his return.

It was with this same assuredness of purpose that she went to the open clay water reservoir to fill her pot on the driest day she remembered since the one her only son was taken from her. A day so dry it seemed to suck the moisture from every pore of her aged body and made her feel like the carcass of a sambar she had once seen as a child, dried out and flattened on the cracked earth. And it was on this day, as she turned from the water, that she first saw the strange man approaching along the road, parting the shimmering heat waves as he came forward, like a great and weary tiger returning from the hunt. Even from a distance, she could tell the differentness about this man who walked beside a large wooden cart being pulled along by two porters.

Chacharabai had the internal sense of something beyond the ordinary approaching. Something was coming along with this man: a heaviness thundering down upon them all. She dropped the pot that swayed, wet-swollen, on her head, and it shattered on the hard earth, filling the cracks with rivulets of moisture and darkening the surrounding dirt. But even as she watched, the darkness began creeping in on itself, defeated by the heat, and as the light, dry earth returned, she knew instinctively that without any signs or forewarnings this had suddenly become the day for which she had waited. Responding to a vague calling from her past, she dropped her head and eyes in submission to the coming apparition and prostrated herself on the parched earth.


        *     *     *

        The barefoot porters awkwardly unloaded a great and dusty white box from the cart, setting it first on its end and then down flat in the powder-fine dirt of the roadside. After some rupees were exchanged, they rested a few yards off and then turned with their cart and began walking slowly back in the direction from which they had come, a weaving trail of dust rising up behind them.

The stranger stood and squinted as the tiny spires of brown particles disappeared back into the vastness of the plain. His pants hung raggedy and stained, his feet were bare and dirt-blackened. A wadded up ball of shirt trailed loosely from the tight grip of his hands. He turned a slow half-circle before sitting shakily on the rounded, oblong surface of the box. The air about him had the heavy, suffocating thickness of midday on the plains of India, and he struggled to translate it into something his lungs could use.

All around him, from dark doorways, the village looked on, trying to comprehend the meaning of this strange man and the box that had accompanied him into their midst.

As he surveyed his surroundings, the man seemed to be wondering the same thing. The village of Gaberdai—if this were, in fact, Gaberdai—consisted of two uneven rows of low shacks that widened to a sprawling clump in the middle. There were no children playing, no women laughing. There were only a few lethargic dogs and bony white cattle lying wherever shade could be found, and one tattered-looking old woman sprawled face down in the hot dust some twenty feet before him. The porters had only nodded when he had anxiously repeated "Gaberdai? Gaberdai?” as they began to unload the great box.

"B-but this doesn't look right," he said, his voice a dry rasp. "There should be more people, perhaps. Children. And... "

His voice trailed off as he looked up at the porters, who only continued to stare, uncomprehending—their eyes fathomless, empty pits. They were more than a little anxious to be rid of their pungent load and had stepped several paces away before taking their brief rest.

So, this was his long-sought destination. If the porters were telling the truth. How was he to know? Although he could not say exactly what he had thought to find upon his arrival, it was definitely not this.

What did I expect—a funeral procession bearing flower petals and beautiful young women in silk saris to take my hand and lead the way?

He couldn't say. Now he was just tired. The feeling had not left him: the feeling of incompletion, of something to be done. But what else could there be? Was he to start out again, to find a more suitable place, to further humiliate and degrade his wife by parading her fetid casket through yet another village?

No, I can't do that. This has to be the place.

He needed her to help him. But even here, where he had hoped to feel her presence, there was nothing. She was gone. Somewhere along the way she had slipped away from him. Now he was alone. Very alone. Yet the fog had been lifting again slowly, almost imperceptibly, from his senses, and he felt a new clarity of thinking. He was just so tired. Maybe this wasn't the right village after all.

He needed something to focus on, and his thirst became that thing. When had he last had water? He’d nursed his sweat-soaked shirt earlier, to little relief, and as soon as his thoughts turned in that direction the thirst became overpowering, unbearable. He began looking around with wild eyes for signs of moisture in this dry, barren place. In the distance, he noticed two women with clay pots atop their heads moving out of the village, and like a parched animal that has caught the scent of water he rose to follow. He hesitated at first, glancing again at the dust-covered box with its drone of frantic flies. No one will bother it now. Without another look he turned to follow the disappearing figures.

Once past the village perimeter, a round, earthen-sided well came into view. The women were unloading their pots and beginning to dip them in the precious liquid. The man ran forward, causing the women to start and step back—one dropping her pot into the depths of the well, beginning to reach for it, then stepping hastily away instead.

He threw his body against the low wall, and without pausing for breath he plunged his head into the murky fluid below. He felt a swelling and nourishing sensation sweep through him, and for a moment his entire existence centered around the swirling wetness. He felt transported to another time: a time before the journey—a time when water had touched his face and everything

had changed forever.

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