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                                   Silent wails from dried rivers...

  

Every which way she turned was sand.  Moonscape, whatever that may be. She thought it first, then said it out loud.

 

Moonscape.”  Even the word felt gritty on her tongue.

 

Once, she had heard a teacher use that word, “moonscape,” and she pictured something strangely beautiful in its voidance of life.  But there was nothing beautiful about what surrounded her now and the only reason this imaginary word had pricked her small, tender temples was because the description had accompanied white, desolate, cracked, sparse, and uninhabited.  This, may have been much of that, but it also revealed remnants of life, vanished.

 

Littered bones, gleaming white in the biting sun.  Stripped to a shadow of what once was.  Smooth and patient – pieces of death, like life, take on an ethereal beauty when met with eternity - bleached by time, unencumbered, and free of pain.

 

Her eyes followed a dry ribbon that etched its way across the parched earth.  She licked her lips, not so much from dryness or thirst, but from memory.  She had drunk here before.  Like the elephants and impala, she had come to this riverbed to wash and drink, to even play, before filling buckets of water to carry home.  She remembered complaining of the heaviness of the buckets, whining of the toil, but at this moment, the weight of past burdens flushed from her thin shoulders like a flock of yellow finches.  

 

She wished, just then, to feel that heaviness once more.

 

When people die of thirst, it is a slow inward eating out, she thought.  That’s how she pictured it.  Like a bloated parasite, swallowing innards, eating its way out of the body a gulp at a time, an insatiable need to devour and suck dry.  On the outside, leaving nothing but a slow, methodical shriveling of muscle and skin; a withered coat, empty, leaving an outward shell, hollow, like the discarded husks she would find littered across the dust.

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She watched her little brother die from being sucked dry.  Dried out.  Too weak and parched to even cry, he was.  At first, when he would cry, there would be small tears.  Sometimes, when nobody was looking, she would lick the salty tears from his cheeks.  She knew it was bad, but the wet tasted good.  The salt on her tongue seemed sweet.  She remembered her friend saying she was stupid to say salty tasted sweet.  But it was the only way she could describe it, the tiny pearl of wet in her mouth that was borne of fading life.    

 

Then, when he became even smaller and sicker, his skin shriveled and tight from the parching, he’d cry and no tears would flow.  Then, no sound would come.  Only a dried petal of a pink mouth wide open, screaming silent wails, while dry tears choked her throat.  Then, he just stopped crying.  Just like that. Then, after he stopped crying, he stopped peeing.  Even she knew this was not good.  No more wet. Wet is good.  Wet is good, her mama would say. 

 

She remembered too, in school, seeing a picture book with a photograph of a fetus in a womb, floating in a silver soft placenta, a pool of warm water tickling its mouth, the little corners lifting up to form a silly smile.  An I-told-you-so smile.

 

That’s when she wished she could swallow her baby brother whole.  To let him swim, deep inside of her, safe. Maybe all of his tears she had swallowed would form a never-ending sea where he could float forever.  But he stopped crying before she could take him in. She wanted to see the dry, cracked arcs at the corners of his mouth lift up, forming that silly smile. Now his smile looked like the dry riverbed.  

 

She remembered telling mama that the buckets were too heavy, that she hated hauling the water.  It was unfair.  She remembers this now as she remembers his tiny face when it stopped crying.  Wet is good, her mama told her.

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Wet is good.  

 

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A native Californian, Jan Baumgartner is a writer and book editor. After many years along the coast of Maine, she now lives full time in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. She's recently finished editing two books; one, a memoir for a non-profit in (more...)
 

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