Jeffrey Greene was born in Michigan, raised in central Florida, and now lives in Bethesda, Maryland. He has had short stories published in North American Review, Zahir Speculative Fiction, Oasis, Tomorrow Speculative Fiction, Reactor, Potomac Review, and this publication.
Listen: when the dust never settles and there is always a dry crust at the corners of your mouth and all your prayers are for rain, then yes, forgive yourself for lying half-awake in the dimness before dawn on the day the Water Man comes to our arid village, dreaming that you hear the faint tinkling of bridle bells. But it is only a caravan of the mind, not of the desert, for the desert at this hour is cold and silent with its own thoughts and gives the dreamer nothing for nothing, just like the Water Man. And yours is not the only swollen tongue licking dry lips, almost tasting the sweetness of his water that will be sold so dearly in a few hours, if God wills that he comes as promised. For the rain barrels are dry, our wineskins empty, our children listless with the thirst that silences. Our need is great, our prayers unanswered, and our only deliverer the hardest of bargainers. But what choice do we have, when to leave this dying town and migrate across the fiery sands to that great city on the river would be impossible without the water necessary to traverse a thousand miles of desolation? Water man, water man: what would we do without you, and what terrible thing did we do to deserve you?
The mystery of his wealth torments and infuriates us, and we would kill him if we could, all of us together, even the children, our blades as insatiable for his blood as our throats for his water. But we would be killing his secret, too, the precious map to the oasis he carries in his head, the oasis that hides itself among the mirages of the desert, trackless and invisible to all but him, where flows the spring that never runs dry, and which has kept us alive these many years since the sky closed its heart to us. And thus confident in our helplessness, the Water Man always comes alone, riding at the head of his train of heavily-laden camels, and on that day we make ready to welcome him, with ribbons and banners and dry-throated cheers, and our village beauties deck themselves out in their finest robes and apply kohl and rouge with a generous hand, and make eyes at him while secretly fingering their daggers. Look, he comes even now, bobbing on his lead camel, his arms spread wide as if to enfold us all in the warmth of his impartial benevolence.
And how he smiles and preens to see us, the whole town gathered there in his honor in the dusty courtyard of the caravanserai, even the old and sick, swaying and tottering on their crutches. For he knows us to a man, and his sharp eye would mark the absence of even one villager, and then he might subtract a camel’s-worth of water from our allotment, claiming prior demands of other customers. But there are no other customers, everyone knows that. He needs us as much as we need him, this nomadic merchant from God knows where, and to see us singing and dancing for joy at his arrival might as well be written on his invoice along with his price in gold.
He only seems tall and imposing atop his camel. Standing among us, he is broad, short, and hairy, his black eyes feasting as the headman’s comeliest daughter steps forward and places a garland of dry flowers around his thick neck, the same crumbling garland every time, because no flowers have grown here since the drought began. He pretends not to notice this, bowing low before her, calling her by name and proclaiming her “Fortune’s favorite” as he ever so casually reaches behind him and unhooks a large, two-handled clay pitcher from his saddle and begins filling it with water from a many-galloned wineskin. We fall silent, licking our lips at the sound of flowing water and he regards us over his shoulder, nodding and showing his big yellow teeth that more than one of our women has likened to a camel’s.
“The fullness of my heart at this moment is as boundless as the waters beneath the desert,” he proclaims. “Do me the honor of accepting this paltry token of my infinite gratitude, and pass the jug among you, taking but a swallow each, and when it is empty I will refill it, until every thirst is slaked. And then we will celebrate our joyful reunion.”
Raising the jug to his lips, he takes a single swallow, so that everyone knows who is first in rank, then ceremoniously presents it to our headman, who bows and murmurs his thanks, sips, then passes it to the man next in rank to himself, who passes it to another, and thus the jug slowly finds its way to the least among us. Under the Water Man’s watchful eye, no one snatches at the vessel, or gulps or takes more than his share. We mask our raging thirst with measured calm, for pleasing him in every particular is always part of the price of doing business with him.
It is a game he never tires of, this elaborate ritual of courtesy, celebration, mutual respect and religiously observed protocol, but it serves the purpose of concealing our hatred and his contempt, and when the farce is finally ended, and he leaves the following morning, his various appetites satisfied, our pockets are empty, our daughters defiled and our cisterns full. We sing songs of farewell and follow his caravan a good half mile out of town, waving and blowing kisses, and he actually weeps tears of departure, sopping his eyes with his dirty sleeve, promising to come again before winter. Almost out of sight, he is still waving as we spit in the sand, call down curses on his head, and return to the village.
And now, finally, after so much suffering, humiliation and dishonor, there will be a real celebration at last, with music and dancing and stews of lamb, lentils, dates and chick peas, served with flat bread and spiced yogurt and pomegranate. And our livestock will thrive again, and there will be sounds of laughter and children playing, and we will keep stoneware cups of our so dearly purchased water by our bedsides, in case we wake out of night terrors of sandstorms and thirst and feel the need for a reassuring sip to remind ourselves that once again, the Water Man has come and gone, and our town will live for at least one more season. We will lie back down then, licking every trace of water from our lips, and go back to dreaming of murder.