First Chapter of my new book Water Blessed.
I tossed and turned all night, too warm in my mud hut to get any restful sleep. The summer had come and we hadn’t had rain in 211 days. I sat up and wrapped a cloth loosely around my slender frame. I didn’t put on undergarments, so the breeze could flow through the thin fabric and offer me some relief from the heat. My mouth was parched. I swallowed and my tongue felt swollen. I crept through the mud hut, careful not to wake my mother’s husband. His anger streak seemed to always be pointed at me. I grabbed the ladle and took one small spoonful of water, tipping my head back and gulping it down in one big swallow. The pot was nearly empty. I would leave the rest for my mother, her husband, and his second wife. I exited my mud hut and looked to the sky. The sun was still asleep as I gripped the three large steel water pots in my hands from our front porch.
My best friend, Lake, was trudging down the dirt road of our village with five huge pots. I loaded my pots on my head, balanced perfectly after years of practice, and met up with her.
“Lake, five pots is too many. You will never make the four-hour journey home with that much water,” I scolded her.
She looked weary. It had been a month since she was sold as a water wife. Her new husband was not kind. Men in our village took wives, up to five each, with the sole purpose of fetching water from the crowded and dangerous water well that was hours away.
She strained to carry the three pots on her head and two in her arms. “Rain is sick. I have to manage five today or my husband will beat me.”
I sucked in a breath and took one of the pots from her. “Lake, you said he was mean, not that he beat you. Tell your parents. We will manage the extra pots together for today.”
Our families sold us as young as fourteen to be water wives, but the men were expected to treat us well. My mother was holding out. She wanted better for me. At eighteen winters old, I was pushing it. She would have to agree to a deal soon. Water wives had a shelf life. It was hard work and took its toll on our bodies.
Lake’s lip quivered. Her long mousy brown hair was tied in a knot at the base of her neck so it would not interfere with pot balance. Her hazel eyes looked sad. Being a water wife did not serve my friend well. Rage boiled up inside of me. Was this what my best friend deserved after walking twenty miles a day to fetch water for her husband? Water wives were supposed to be cherished. They brought life to the family.
“Ocean, what do you expect me to do? I’m seventeen winters old, a third wife and I have no skills,” she pleaded with me. The tone in her voice, defeat; it broke my heart.
I sighed, resigned. “We’ll figure something out,” I told her and began walking the ten miles through the driest, hottest stretch of land in the realm. I looked out at the sea of brown. Dry, flat dirt for as far as the eye could see.
We made small talk on the walk over. My tongue was beginning to swell with thirst and the sun had completely risen.
“It’s getting too hot to do day walks, we should try to do our water collection at night for the rest of the summer.” Lake groaned.
Sweat was pouring down both of our backs. The cloth covering my body was soaked and sticking to my skin.
I managed a laugh. “We would be killed. Two young women at the watering hole at night?” I shivered. She knew the stories of the thugs that policed the watering hole at night. She knew what happened to me; what I had endured. No thank you. I will take my chance with the sun.
Within a mile from the watering hole, I realized Lake wasn’t beside me. I turned around to see her sitting against her large pots, head drooped. I dropped the pot in my hand and lowered the three from my head and ran to her.
“Are you hurt? What’s wrong? Is it the heat death?” I fawned over her, feeling her head.
She shook her head and stared out into the flat, arid land, void of any green, of any beauty.
“Ocean?” she asked me, “will this be my whole life? Will I just fetch water for a husband who beats me until the heat death takes me?”
I seized her in a hug as tears somehow managed to fall from my parched skin.
“Oh, Lake.” I had no hope to give her. Then something struck me.
“The Summer Solstice festival is tomorrow night. It’s been twenty years since the Fates gifted us with a Water Blessed. Maybe it will be you.” The second the words left my lips, a glimmer of hope twinkled in her eye.
“Really?” She pleaded with her eyes.
I nodded. Every woman in my village was named after a body of water in hopes of gaining favor with the Fates. For every twenty years, the power to create water from nothing was given to a young girl. Lake stood with renewed energy and hope. She balanced her pots on her head and began the final walk to the watering hole. I smiled. It was a nice thought. To be given such a power would be worth all of the jewels in Jewel Mountain. Water was life, to have it, to create it at will. It made you a God.
I caught up to Lake at the watering hole. The line was long. We stood for more than an hour and finally Lake was next. She disrobed and soaked her cloth to wear on the walk back. Some of the village boys and the water thugs stared at her naked breasts. I unhooked the blade from the holster attached to my inner thigh and let the sun glint off the steel edge. I shined the light in a thug’s face. He raised an arm to block the light, and looked at me.
I gave him a stony-faced expression, any kindness at the watering hole was mistaken for weakness. His name was Marques, and he had a long scar on his forearm to remember me by. And I had a stolen innocence to remember him by. Some girls went to bed with the watering hole thugs willingly, some were forced. My stepfather was a village elder and paid the thugs to keep other villages away, but they still wanted to have their fun with the girls. Not Lake. Not me. Never again.
When Lake had dressed and filled all of her pots, it was my turn. I filled my pots and disrobed. I kept my eyes on Marques as I soaked my cloth. His gaze roamed the length of my body and he licked his lips.
“How’s your arm?” I taunted him and wrapped my body in the cool wet cloth.
He sneered. “If your stepfather wasn’t an elder, I would have my way with you every day.”
“One time was enough to make me sick,” I told him, as some of the other thugs laughed. He lunged for me but I was quick. I whipped out my knife and had it wedged between his legs before he could do anything. I could smell his sweaty skin and acidic breath. I wanted to kill him, but politics kept me from it.
“If you touch me again, I will take your manhood. Not in the way you want,” I threatened. I hate that this was who I had become. It was the only way to get respect at the watering hole. He spat into one of my water pots and backed off.
I rolled my eyes and stacked my full pots on top of my head. The extra pot, I grasped in my arms and hugged to my body. I had never made the walk with four large pots, neither had Lake.
I followed her back up the hill and we began our trek home, passing many other women from our village.
It took us nearly twice as long with the extra pots. They were heavy and women we passed earlier while leaving the watering hole, passed us going home. I groaned as we finally made it to Lake’s hut. My arms felt like rubber, my neck was stiff. I wanted nothing more than to collapse and drink an entire water pot on my own.
“Thank you.” Lake hugged me. “You’re a good friend, Ocean.”
I was too tired to speak, so I smiled instead.
I took my three pots home and my stepfather, Bernie, was waiting for me. He didn’t look happy. Lake’s husband, Byron, was sitting with him. Why was he here? My mother was cooking dinner and my stepfather’s second wife, Creek, was sweeping the floors.
“There you are, Ocean!” my stepfather roared.
I set down the water and bowed. “I’m sorry, I had to help Lake carry an extra pot. Rain is sick.”
Lake’s husband looked drunk. “Rain passed away from the heat death today. May the Fates keep her soul.”
“May the fates keep her soul,” my stepfather echoed.
My hand went to my mouth. Poor Rain. She was older than us, just by a few winters. Far too young to meet death. Lake would be crushed.
“Byron is here to offer us something.” The gleam in my stepfather’s eye made me nervous. My mother and I shared a look. Oh please, no.
Byron sloppily pulled out a parchment ledger. “I would like to take Ocean as my new water wife. I can offer you three sacks of wheat, five sacks of potatoes, one live oxen and ten full pots of water.”
My mother dropped a pan in the kitchen and it crashed to the floor. My stepfather glared at her.
The wind had been taken out of me. I couldn’t speak. I knew a proposal would come. We had two already, but this offer was good. Too good. No one had ever paid so much for a water wife. Ten water pots. Poor Lake would be trudging to the watering hole twice a day to stock up for that. Byron was the only farmer in our village. He hoarded his family’s secret about how to plant and yield crop in drought conditions. All of the younger men worked for him and his land was at least a thousand oxen wide and two thousand long. He was a rich bastard and everyone did what he said. I never expected an offer from him.
I cleared my throat and approached the subject carefully.
“Stepfather, who will fetch your water?” I asked sweetly.
My stepfather gave me a glare that told me I would be getting a belting later. “Your mother or Creek. They have become lazy since you began fetching anyway.”
I looked at my mother’s mangled hands, the hump at the back of her neck. She was too old and tired to be a water wife. She had done her days of fetching water. No! Anger boiled up inside me.
My stepfather shook hands with Byron. “The wedding will commence next full moon,” he agreed.
“I haven’t said yes,” I told them incredulously. My fists balled.
“Dear, let’s talk in private, as a family, before we give Master Byron an answer,” my mother pleaded and rubbed her husband’s shoulders.
He threw her hand off. “You’re lucky I married you and took your daughter as my own after your husband died,” he told my mother. “She’s become a burden. I’m agreeing to the deal.” He nodded to Byron. That was that. No more would be said or there would be hell to pay. Unless I could afford my own hut, food, and water, which I couldn’t, I had no say.
Byron stood and approached me, his eyes scanned my long, dark, black hair, my emerald green eyes, down my sun-kissed skin and then to my full breasts. I wanted to vomit. That disgusting man would never be my husband. How had Lake’s parents agreed to him? He was at least forty-five winters old. I was younger than his own daughter.
He smiled and left.
My mother grabbed some dirty kitchen utensils and looked at me. “Ocean, help me with the washing.”
I followed my mother to the back of our hut and outside into the small courtyard. It was a luxury to have an enclosed private space. My stepfather being on the elder council had its perks.
My mother poured some precious water into the cleaning basin and washed the utensils. I sat near her, ready for her counsel. Ready for her to tell me to be a good water wife and do the only thing that a woman could do in our village. Fetch water.
“Tomorrow, during the revelry of the summer solstice, the men will be drowning in mead, the village will be bustling,” she told me.
I nodded. My arms and legs were sore from carrying the extra pot with Lake. My mother leaned in very close, her faint whisper could barely be heard. “That’s when you will sneak away.”
My mouth dropped open in shock. I sat rigid, unsure if I heard her correct.
She continued, “Take my traveling canteen, some food, and your stepfather’s gold Kings Coin. You can reach the city of Mule in two nights’ brisk walk. The darkness will cloak you at night and you can sleep in the day to avoid the sun. You’re strong and good with your blade. You can fight off a thug or two, pay them the Kings Coin if you must.”
“Mother, what are you saying?” Had she lost her mind? Mule was far. If I made it, once there what would I do? Mule had their own water well in town. They guarded it and had no need for water fetchers. I had no other skills. I had also never heard of anyone who traveled to Mule in the hot summer. People died on that walk.
She grabbed my face and stared into my eyes. Looking at her green eyes and ink black hair peppered with strands of silver, I realized how much we looked alike. My mother was beautiful once, but the sun and hard work had taken its toll.
“I’m saying I want more for you. Sell your hair, get an apprenticeship with a seamstress or try to sell your paintings at market. Anything but being a water wife. Anything.” Tears rolled down her face and left tracks in her dusty skin.
My throat pinched. “What about you and Lake? Bernie will kill you.”
“Lake and I will be fine. We both want a better life for you. I will play coy with your stepfather and the elders. I will disown you. Say you acted without my knowledge.”
Even though it was a lie, hearing her casually say she would disown me, hurt. Disowning someone in my village was the worst thing you could do and brought great dishonor to the family. But something else stirred inside of me. Could I really? Could I get an apprenticeship? Learn a trade? Sell my paintings? A thrill of excitement washed through me. My mother saw it in my eyes. I nodded. Stream, a sixteen-winters-old girl, once left the village five years ago. The elders said she died in the Death Valley before making it to Mule, but her mother told differently. She had made it to Mule, fell in love with a cobbler’s son and they got married, for love not for water.
“Okay, Mama,” I told her with certainty.
She cupped my face sadly. “Okay.”
Because I knew how horrible Byron was, I didn’t think I could leave Lake. If I left alone, unmarried, no one would come for me. If I took Lake with me, Byron would send for her, we would be found. The smart thing to do would be to leave without her. I tossed and turned all night and finally in the early hours, sleep took me.