By Kelsey Ortman
Shewa could hear running water, delicate flowing at the edge of her mind. She tried to turn her head to look for it, to reach her hand out and touch it, but her body was too heavy to move. Her lips and throat ached for cool water and her skin felt stretched and parched. Again, she attempted to lift her head, and this time it moved with her effort. The water suddenly seemed more distant; a far away river. Every thought in Shewa’s head fought for the water and struggled to grasp it as it trickled farther and farther away. The gurgle slowly blended into soft voices that seemed to echo in a deep space. Light gradually shone red through her eyelids and she lifted her lashes to see blurry figures glide across her vision.
“Look. She moved. Do you think she’s waking up? Put the paper away.”
Shewa blinked slowly and tried to focus her failing eyes on the looming shapes standing around her. Her heart skipped as she made out the tall figure of her sister, long limbs and spine straight as if there were a rod running through her body. Shewa tried to call out to her, then remembered with confusion that Abeba had died years ago, along with the rest of her/ her sister and hers generation. Suddenly her head seemed to clear. Her age came rushing back through her shrunken muscles like the mudslides that tore down the mountain in the rainy season. A soft breath of air pushed out of her lungs. She felt so weak. So heavy.
Light winked off the reflection of a hovering pair of glasses, accompanied by a low voice. “Auntie Shewa, can you hear me?”
Shewa recognized the concerned face of the doctor who lived in the village down the mountain.
“I…I heard water,” she murmured, her tongue moving sluggishly and her lips cracking with dryness. “Water. The River,” she tried to swallow. “I heard the River.”
“Fortunately,” the doctor said with a smile, “your time is not up yet.” A tsk sounded behind him.
“Don’t humor her, Doctor,”
He turned to the tall woman and asked her politely for a glass of water. The woman reluctantly left the small hut and returned with a small cup of rain water from the bucket outside.
“You’ve been very ill for a few days,” the doctor went on as he adjusted the stethoscope around his neck, “The girl that helps you with your housekeeping, I believe she called herself Gabra, she found you on the path down to the well. You should not walk that far at your age.” He held her white-haired head in one large hand and raised the glass to her lips. The cool water soaked her tongue and drenched her throat with relief as the doctor continued. “And such a rocky and treacherous road! I struggle to reach your house on that path and I am still young. You were lucky you did not fall and that Gabra found you so quickly.”
The doctor set the glass down on the dirt floor and looked at her. “Is that better? Do you need more water?”
I need a river of water, Shewa thought, but she shook her head weakly and tried to readjust herself on her sleeping mat. Her limbs felt as heavy as rocks, but as brittle as dry grass. The simple act of taking a breath, of expanding her rib cage to make room for air, seemed to drain her body of energy.
The Doctor saw her effort, and immediately shifted on his knees to help her, placing her pillow so she could see the rest of the round hut.
He cleared his throat and said in a slightly louder voice, “You see your great grandniece and nephew are here. What a wonderful coincidence that they would come see you right when you might need their assistance. It would have taken a few days to get word to them in the city, had they not been on their way already.”
A young man stepped forward from the shadows and awkwardly shifted his feet, and the tall woman’s posture straightened even more.
“We are glad to see you awake, auntie,” the tall woman said in a cool voice with a small tight smile. “I was praying for you.”
The young man rolled his eyes and his sister glared at him.
“Thank you, Makeda,” Shewa murmured wearily, wanting to avoid another argument with her niece about religion.
Makeda’s grandmother had been first to leave the small village in the mountains and settle in the city across the valley. She had also been the first to embrace the new religion wholeheartedly, returning a few times a year with her children to spend time with her mother and aunt. After her visits, Abeba would struggle up the rocky path to the home place and lament the stupidity of her family to Shewa over small cups of dark coffee. The sisters would click their tongues at the foolishness of the young and Abeba would applaud Shewa on being wise enough to spend her life as a single woman, avoiding the plague of children. Although Shewa’s eyes would crinkle with laugher, Abeba recognized the loneliness that sometimes tinged her sister’s voice. Her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren were required to make their way to Auntie Shewa’s hut on their visits, a promise to Abeba that had kept even after she had passed away and the family had scattered. Now, only Makeda and Ras were left to grudgingly fulfill their family duty.
The Doctor leaned back on his heels, elbows on his knees, and asked, “Do you need anything else, Auntie? More water? I can give you some medication if you are feeling any pain.”
“No. Thank you, Doctor,” Shewa answered, ignoring the sharpness in her lungs and tightness in her chest. “There is no need to fight the current. The River will take me soon enough, with or without medication.”
There was a squawk of protest from Makeda on the other side of the room, but the Doctor just nodded and said, “Then I will go outside and check your water tank. Gabra said she would return before nightfall.” He felt the pulse on her bony wrist, then stood and exited the small doorway.
There was a tense moment of silence as the three remaining in the room looked at each other, all frantically trying to think of a topic they had in common. Makeda threw back her shoulders and made the first move toward Shewa’s mat.
“I am sorry it has been so long since we last visited, Auntie. Life is so busy for us right now with the apartment remodeling and…” Her voice faltered for a moment as her eyes flickered to the thatched roof and mud floor, then grew faster with false energy, “But we brought some gifts for you.” She motioned to her brother, who grabbed a red vinyl suitcase that had been leaning against the stick wall.
They knelt next to Shewa and presented an assortment of items; a battery-run lantern, a pair of dark blue shoes, a set of plastic dinnerware. Makeda slipped a wooden bracelet over Shewa’s hand, the first gift from the suitcase that Shewa really appreciated.
“I got this for you from a woman who lives near my apartment.” Makeda looked almost embarrassed for a moment. “I thought you would like the design.”
“It is lovely, Makeda. Lovely.” Shewa fingered the wooden beads then reached out a wrinkled hand to touched Makeda’s smooth cheek. “When I woke I thought you were your great grandmother. She also stood like a strong tree.”
Ras snorted. “A stubborn tree.”
Shewa and Makeda both smiled, and the moment of feeling connected as a family felt like ointment to Shewa’s body.
Then in a flash the feeling was gone again.
Makeda reached into the suitcase and pulled out a carved wooden cross.
Shewa sighed inwardly and Ras swore under his breath.
“For pity’s sake, Makeda,” Ras snapped, “Stop trying to shove your religion down everyone else’s throat.”
Makeda’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “I’m not shoving anything down anyone’s throat. We believe in something. That’s better than your self-righteous scientific load of junk.”
Weariness and pain traveled across Shewa’s translucent skin and through her veins. She had never felt so much weight on her body, and the fiery words spoken above her seemed to deepen her fever.
“Being educated does not make a person self-righteous,” Ras was replying. “It makes them correct. And she does not believe what…” his words broke off as he quickly glanced and Shewa’s worn face. “Can we speak outside for a moment? I apologize, Auntie.”
He kissed her cheek and strode out of the hut. Makeda’s kiss was stiff against the deep wrinkles of Shewa’s face, and then she was gone too.
Despite leaving the room, Shewa could still hear the discussion between her niece and nephew through stick and mud covered walls, muffled words becoming clearer when one raised their voice.
“It’s my duty as a Christian, to – ”
“She will not change her mind Makeda, I mean, come on. She has been obsessively talking about a river flowing her off the edge of the planet ever since we were children. Off the edge of a flat world! She is too old to change. Let her believe in her traditions and die in peace. Besides, we have other reasons to be here than conversions.”
There was a moment of silence, then softer tones murmured.
Shewa closed her eyes and blocked all other noise, listening instead to the steady beat of blood that played a rhythm in her temples. She knew why they were here, why they always came. Ras believed the land on which her hut stood was riddled with opals. He had heard of a deposit found nearby and had brought a man years before to look at the rocky soil on Shewa’s mountainside. There was a very good possibility that a sea of opals lay hidden beneath the small farm. Suddenly Makeda and Ras had a reason to make a connection with their aunt, and in the process, follow dreams of moving into larger houses in better neighborhoods. Shewa could see how furious Ras had become when she had refused to let anyone dig on her property. His eyes had widened frighteningly with incredulity and anger when Shewa told him she would not disturb the spirits residing in the ground. Long, tense conversations had followed. When he saw that she would not budge on the issue, he apologized, but still brought the papers for her to sign every time he and his sister visited. While Makeda was not quite as verbal as her brother, Shewa noted how her hands would tighten around her coffee cup and eyes would sharpen when opals were introduced into the conversation. With every “no” Shewa gave, Makeda would give an exasperated sigh before struggling to compose her face into a stiff yet serene mask.
Shewa absentmindedly fingered the engraved designs carved into the wooden bracelet resting on her wrist, eyes still closed. The tips of her fingers shook slightly as they skimmed over the raised swirls and circles, making the smaller beads click against the larger pieces. She seemed to remember her sister wearing a similar bracelet as a young woman, shaking her wrists to make the beads dance against her skin. A smile stole across Shewa’s face, then faded.
Perhaps she was old and ridiculous, and perhaps the world was round and her beliefs were stubborn and outdated. But she had been dreaming of water for the last three years. She would close her eyes at night and find herself floating on her back in a smooth river of blue green water, hands rippling at her sides in the way her older brothers had taught her as a child. A feeling of the deepest peace and comfort would steal over her body until morning, when ache would return to her muscles and the sharpness to her lungs with every low breath. Shewa was tired. She was tired of pain, and loneliness, and fighting with her niece and nephew over digging in the dirt. As unbelievable as it sounded to her remaining family, she believed to her core that the River would carry her over the edge of this world and into the next life, and she prayed for it daily.
The sound of footsteps at the door made Shewa attempt to muster the energy to open her eyes and turn her body. The muscles in her neck gave out and her head flopped to her shoulder. The Doctor was quickly at her side, gently cupping her head and readjusting her pillow so she could lay flat. His hand searched for her pulse in the folds of skin on her neck and his eyes looked concerned.
“Your heartbeat is slow, and your breathing seems shallower since I left. Auntie…” His voice trailed off.
Shewa’s fingers fluttered against his hand. “It is all right.”
“Have you written a will?” He seemed uncomfortable with the words.
Shewa laughed, a soft wheeze flowing from between her lips. “I made a will years ago. I have been waiting a long time.”
The hut seemed to fade for a moment, then come back into focus as Shewa’s family members entered.
The Doctor ignored them and asked Shewa if she wanted some water.
“I will get some for her”, Makeda quickly volunteered, grabbing the glass off the floor and hurrying out of the hut.
Ras cleared his throat and played with a piece of paper in his hand. “Auntie, I can tell you are tired so I will make this quick so you can rest…”
His voice faded then reappeared in Shewa’s ears.
“…we have talked about it before but…..and I ….”
The faintest sound of trickling water seemed to be drowning out his words, slowing growing louder as the straw roof, the doctor, and light from the doorway meshed together in a lazy blur.
…and Auntie, if we….I…Auntie…..Auntie….
Then his voice was gone, replaced by cool water flowing around Shewa’s ears and face. The wooden bracelet shifted on her wrist as her hands moved back and forth, keeping her body afloat. All breath exited her body, and with it left the pain and inconvenience of lungs having to constantly work for air. The water grew louder, as if nearing rapids, but the current did not speed up. Instead it guided her slowly, slowly over the edge.