Ashes on the Water
by Gwendolyn Clare
I hoped that Ranjeet’s friends were as disreputable as promised. Ranjeet himself was late, of course. I’d asked him to park his car out on the road and meet me behind the house–my cousin is, shall we say, out of favor, and I couldn’t afford to get caught with him. So I sat on the dry, cracked ground in the shadow of the house, waiting where Father wouldn’t think to look for me. A meter away, heat rose off the sun-baked earth, wavering like water, as if the dormant land dreamed of monsoon season. I shut my eyes against the image. For years now, each summer has come harsher than the last.
Soft footsteps in the dirt, and Ranjeet strolled around the corner of the house, calling, “You’ll never make it across the border, kid.”
I stood up and brushed the dust off my jeans, annoyed. Seventeen and he still calls me a kid. “Why don’t you say that a little louder? I don’t think the neighbors could hear you clearly.”
The closest neighbors live on the other side of a one-hectare vacant field that used to be the mango grove, before the mango trees withered. I used to sit on Father’s shoulders to help with the harvest when I was small. He keeps saying we’re going to replant the grove, but nobody’s all that eager to dig up the dead roots.
Ranjeet folded his arms and leaned back against the side of the house. “You know it’s true.”
“Did you get the papers for me, or not?”
He pulled a thick envelope out of the inner pocket of his cream-colored sportcoat, but he held on to it, turning it over in his hands. “What are you planning to do, smuggle it in your shoes?
You’re going to get caught.”
I held out my empty palm impatiently. “What do I owe you?”
“Nothing. This is a family matter, Riti.” He passed the envelope reluctantly. “Just don’t tell anyone where you got this.”
My fingers itched to open the envelope, but it would be rude to check the quality of the forgery with Ranjeet watching. “You know I have to go. I owe her that much.”
“She wouldn’t have asked you for this.”
“She didn’t need to.” I would have given her much more without her asking. I wished I could trade places and let her be the one to live, but I couldn’t. All I had was this one thing left to do.
The day Priya died, I saved my water ration for washing the body.
Father did not approve. He said we didn’t have the luxury of adhering to the old customs anymore. He said I was being foolish, hurting myself for the sake of my dead sister. Her soul had moved on, after all. The body was just an empty shell. He said that God had taken her.
Mother didn’t say anything at all. She went out to sit on the balcony overlooking the almond grove. Hands folded in her lap, she stared into the distance with dry, tired eyes. The youngest of the almond trees were planted when I was seven, and Mother used to sit up there to watch Priya and me watering the saplings through their first difficult summer. I wondered if she thought about that, now. She refused to eat or drink, or even sleep. I think she scared Father.
That left Grandmother and me to wash Priya and change her clothes. Grandmother’s fingers look as brittle as old sticks, but she held the sponge steadily, patting it against Priya’s cold skin with a serene gentleness. Mine were the hands that shook while I brushed out my sister’s lustrous dark hair.
At least her eyes were closed. There had always been something in her eyes–a deep compassion, as if she really saw not just me, but everyone–and I didn’t want to know if it was gone now. Easier to pretend she was asleep, with her eyes closed.
Grandmother set the sponge aside and gave me a warm, sad smile. “You must be happy for your sister. She has continued on her journey with God.”
“She went too soon. She wasn’t done yet.” My voice trembled, and I bit the inside of my cheeks to keep my hold on all the things that wanted to come tumbling out.
Grandmother paused, lips pursed, then said, “Do you want help braiding her hair?” I suppose she doesn’t have an answer for everything.
I could feel Priya lingering. Her patient awareness seemed to sit in the corner, silent and unobtrusive yet pricking at my senses like a misfired nerve. Even after the funeral, it felt like she was waiting for us to decide what to do with her. I wondered, from the pinched look on Father’s face or the strain in Mother’s eyes, if perhaps they felt it, too. Maybe moving on to the next life is not an easy task.
I asked the Water Commission, but they said no. Formal petition denied, bribe taken without recompense, pleading met with scorn. Despite everything Priya had done, they refused to make an exception for her. After my third trip to their office in town, I gave up hope of getting legal permission, and went directly to the river itself.
The chainlink fence stretched for kilometers in each direction, winding alongside the river valley like an endless, diamond-scaled snake. Razorwire topped the fence, so climbing over wasn’t an option. I would need bolt cutters and a security lag long enough to use them.
I twined my fingers through the chainlink fence to trip the system and checked my watch, testing the lag time before a guard arrived. Beyond the crosshatched steel, I could almost see the water. Nimm trees grew wild in the valley, choking what remained of the river within. The branches harbored hundreds of hard green fruits, waiting patiently for the summer rains to come before they ripened, and curtains of narrow leaflets blocked my view, but I knew the river was there. You can’t hide a river, not from me. I can feel the water the way a bird feels North. Priya taught me how.
Boots crunched on gravel behind me, and I checked my watch again: nine minutes. Not nearly enough time to cut a hole in the fence, sneak through, and make it back out again.
“Miss, this is a restricted area. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” If I’d been a grown man, he might have shot me in the back instead of asking. I suppose I should have felt scared, or grateful, but I didn’t feel anything at all.
“Sorry,” I lied. “I was just looking.”
When I went home, I had to tell my family that we couldn’t send Priya’s ashes down the river. That’s when Mother finally cried.
They talked about keeping the ashes, or maybe scattering them on the wind. That river took our ancestors’ ashes for centuries, until the government tightened the water regulations, and now no one knew what to do. I spoke up when Father suggested we bury the ashes; I couldn’t bear the thought of Priya eternally trapped in a jar under the ground, never able to find her way back to the sea.
Oh, I know, they’re just her physical remains, not the soul that made her _Priya_, but all life comes from water and should go back to it when it’s done. Priya went to university to become an oceanographer, supporting her reverence for the ocean with knowledge, and she dedicated herself to restoring our country’s collapsed marine fisheries. In death, as in life, she belonged to the water.
I ran my finger down the slick side of the jar that held her remains, thinking. There had to be a way–if not here, than somewhere.
“Don’t worry, Priya,” I said to the jar. “It’s my turn to take care of you, now.” Priya always did the right thing, the difficult thing, and so would I.
The border guard tilted my IndPass to make the holograms catch the light. I guess Ranjeet’s guy did a good job with the forgery, since the guard nodded and handed it back to me. I gave him a bland smile and opened my duffel bag for inspection. He took out the top jar, popped it open, and checked the contents against the “declared items” list on my customs sheet. Dried figs, as listed. I reminded myself to breathe. I’d buried Priya’s jar beneath several layers of legitimate produce; the guard would get bored long before he found it, so long as I didn’t do anything to make him suspicious.
He opened another jar, looked at the list, put it back. I made a show of checking my watch. Better to look impatient than nervous, I figured.
He finished with the duffel bag and, while I zipped it up, raked his eyes over my motorcycle and myself. I guess he decided I wasn’t hiding anything, since he dismissed me with a curt wave of his hand a moment later. I tied the bag down to the luggage rack of the motorcycle, hopped on, and kicked the engine to life.
Haryana reeked of petrol exhaust. In Punjab, hardly anyone used petroleum-based fuel anymore, but here the pollution clung like a dirty gray veil, dulling the little city of Mandi Dabwali. I stopped to recharge my batteries and had to wait in line for two hours to earn myself a scant thirty minutes at the plug. The electric power infrastructure definitely left something to be desired on this side of the state border.
I made one more stop to stock up on food and water, then said good riddance to Mandi Dabwali. I hadn’t come to Haryana for the people, after all.
The highway passed over the Ghaggar, giving me a glimpse of the bone dry riverbed below. I expected it to be dry at this time of year, so the sight didn’t come as a disappointment. I wasn’t
interested, anyway. The Ghaggar empties into the Thar Desert–dries up and disappears, even at the peak of monsoon season–and I wanted to find a river that would take her all the way to the ocean.
I zipped through the towns like a two-wheeled wind, stopping only when my battery charge demanded it. After Hisar, a mid-sized city choked with sweat and petrol fumes, I left the national highway for a dusty, cracked route through Bhiwani district. The highways splay out from Delhi like the arms of a brittle star, and Delhi had nothing to offer me.
With a sharp afternoon sun at my back, I followed the little-used district route along the northern margin of the desert. A row of sad acacias squatted along the roadside to my right, assigned the thankless duty of serving as a shelterbelt to keep back the sand. It didn’t work very well. Twice, I needed to slow down and swerve around a dune that had begun to crawl over the pavement. I suppose this explained why the route was nearly abandoned: all the locals knew the desert would soon consume it.
Three hours and a few route changes later, I pulled into a small town just west of the Yamuna river. Old nimm trees stood guard here and there around the buildings, heavily cultivated at some point in the past. I took that as a good sign–if the residents had enough water to keep the nimm trees alive, maybe they had river access around here.
I stopped at the petrol station to recharge the motorcycle, then went across the street to a little dhaba for some food. At the counter, I gave my order to a middle-aged Sikh gentleman who was probably the owner.
With shrewd eyes, he took in my long, tangled hair and my dust-worn clothes, pegging me for a traveler. He said, “If you’re headed for Delhi, you’re about fifty kilometers too far south.”
I shrugged ambiguously. “Guess I’m not headed for Delhi, then.”
He called my order at a harried kitchenhand not much older than myself, took my money, and made change.
I pocketed the coins and said as casually as I could, “So many nimm trees. You must be very lucky, living so close to the river.”
The dhaba owner shook his head. “The patrols start back up before the fruit ripens, so the trees are on their own. You know how it is–damned Water Commission.”
Which meant that the patrols didn’t run all year long. I shook my head, too, pretending to commiserate and hiding my excitement. This could be it.
My food arrived, and I took the plate of lentils and paratha and turned away to find a spot at the tables. The spicy aroma made my stomach grumble impatiently.
“Hey, kid.” I looked back over my shoulder, and the owner gave me a slight, knowing smile. “Whatever you’re looking for, I hope you find it.”
We could never lie to each other, Priya and I. The truth always passed between us, even if the words themselves conveyed a falsehood. So when she told me she was feeling better, I knew she meant that she was dying.
I sat beside the bed, her clammy fingers intertwined with mine, and she told me, “Don’t worry, Riti. It’ll work this time.”
“Of course it will,” I agreed, by which I meant, I’m not ready. The latest round of antibiotics sat in their white plastic bottle on her nightstand. Mother methodically removed the old prescription bottles after each attempt, as if trying to expunge the failure of modern medicine from the room.
The latest little white bottle sat alone on the table like a terrified vanguard facing an onslaught of millions. Such a small thing to place my hope on.
I said, “Do you remember our vacation on the coast, when I lost my sandal?”
“We were–” She coughed. Wet, body-wracking coughs that had once made me cringe, but I was used to them now. “We were climbing around and you slipped, and it fell down a hole between the rocks.”
“You slid down to get it so Father wouldn’t yell at me. You got soaked. And you almost couldn’t climb out again.”
Priya laughed, though the air sounded like sandpaper in her throat. “I couldn’t get a foothold with all the algae. I was so scared he’d catch me down there.”
“You were never scared.” I squeezed her hand.
It was pure chance that Priya had been home for a visit when the illness hit. A town in the next district over had contaminated drinking rations. She grabbed her test kits, borrowed Father’s car, and rushed out there to help. The Water Commission was thrilled to have a scientist on site so quickly; it would have taken a whole day to get someone up from Delhi.
She traced the contamination to a hospital immediately upriver of the town and probably saved a lot of lives. But by that time, she was already sick.
When the first prescription didn’t work, I looked it up. The process of researching, designing, testing, and marketing a new antibiotic takes one or two decades. Think about it: that’s pretty much an aeon in the evolutionary history of an organism with a generation time as short as fifteen minutes. Some bacteria even steal antibiotic resistance genes by gobbling up DNA from other bacteria.
The amazing part isn’t the existence of super-resistant, pathogenic strains of bacteria. The thing that’s amazing is that we don’t have more of them.
The Hindus consider the Yamuna river sacred and personify it as a goddess in their mythology. It was also, at one time, the most polluted river in the world. No matter what else I have said about the Water Commission, I could thank them at least for saving Yamuna. I needed her, now.
I followed the fence on the western side of the river to the nearest patrol house and drove by slowly; it was dark and silent, unused at this time of year. As far as I could tell, the dhaba owner had not misled me.
The fence was still topped with razor wire and I had no bolt cutters to use on chainlink, but at least I probably wouldn’t get shot. I spent the rest of the afternoon looking for a way in, and the best I could find was a spot where I might be able to slip under. I yanked up on the chainlink to stretch it away from the ground, then kicked at dirt until I made a lens of space big enough for a person.
With Priya’s jar wrapped carefully in a small satchel, I lay down on my stomach and squeezed and shimmied under the fence. I didn’t bother dusting myself off when I stood up on the other side, I just shouldered the satchel and plowed forward into the straggly green vegetation of the river valley. Thorny shrubs clawed at my clothes, my exposed face, and I couldn’t sense the water yet, but I pushed through blindly toward the river.
I popped out of the brush like a cork from a bottle and landed on bone-dry earth. An old ox-bow, maybe. I turned left and walked, following a bend, the crusted riverbed crunching under the soles of my shoes. A net of fine cracks wove across the ground, mourning the loss of water.
The sun began to set and the evening light cast a muted orange glow over everything. I walked until the winding bed straightened out and I could see a kilometer or so upstream. This wasn’t an ox-bow. I stood in the middle of the Yamuna.
The reason the Water Commission didn’t guard the river in summer was that there was no river, and wouldn’t be for weeks until the monsoon came.
As the sky dimmed to twilight, I knelt down in the cracked mud of the riverbed and finally let myself cry.
The wind off the ocean smelled salty and fishy, and waves rustled against the rocky shore like a liquid lullaby. The raw scrapes on my foot still stung, so I held the rescued sandal in my lap. Priya sat next to me, the legs of her salwar hiked above her knees but soaked nonetheless. Despite the heavy yellow sunlight, the wind pricked goosebumps on her wet skin.
“You’re cold,” I said guiltily.
“It’s only water, it’ll dry.”
I fingered the damp sandal. “I’m sorry you’re gonna get in trouble.”
Priya put an arm around my shoulders. “We all come from the water, do you know that? Every living thing. Water fills the cells in our bodies and flows in our veins. Life and water are one and the same, inseparable. You don’t need your eyes and your ears and your nose to feel the ocean.” She tapped my breastbone, a little to the left. “It’s always here, Riti, in your heart.”
“So you don’t mind?”
“No, I don’t mind getting wet.” She smiled. “You’ll understand someday.”
I followed the eastern margin of the Thar Desert, skirting around the barren heart of Rajasthan. A chain of low, rough mountains broke the horizon on my left. When my money ran low, I began selling almonds and figs in the towns I passed through, but I never stayed long.
By the time I crossed the state border into Gujarat, I stopped asking after the rivers. The Sabarmati dries up in the summer like the Yamuna. It didn’t matter. The ocean swelled as I drove, a tangible weight in the distance long before I could see or smell or hear it. Small objects fall toward larger ones, gravity proportional to mass. So it was with me and the ocean.
I stopped in a bustling town south of the monstrous ultra-modern metropolis that was Ahmedabad and found an open-air market in which to sell the last of my produce. The vendor gave me a decent price with a minimum of haggling, and his casual generosity gave me a grain of hope for humankind.
As we completed the exchange, I noticed another booth across the marketplace where a tight cluster of people were deliberating in animated Gujarati. “What is that?” I asked in rusty English. Nobody spoke Punjabi this far south.
The vendor grinned as if I wasn’t the first person to ask that question. “He’s our seed merchant. Desert-adapted crops–natural, gen-mod, custom, you name it. Since the agave blight in Mexico, Gujarat is tequila central. Jojoba does well, too.” Then he shrugged, a slight retraction of his previous enthusiasm. “But with all the rain you get up north, who needs agave? Not like here.”
I pressed my lips into a smile. “Right.” No matter where I went, people assumed that someone else was better.
I made my goodbyes and hopped on my motorcycle, already feeling the ocean’s pull despite the brevity of the stop. It was temptingly close, but I wanted to take my time and find the right shore–our shore.
Amazingly, I half-remembered the way there. Things had changed, of course, in the intervening years; maybe it wasn’t so much visual memory as instinctual, the salt in my blood knowing the route. Either way, I found myself parking the motorcycle and lifting Priya’s jar in my hands, dreamlike, slow and attentive.
The tide was high but falling. Ocean spray flecked the limestone, punctuated here and there with shattered white seashells left by the shorebirds. I slid my feet forward to the edge of a sharp drop-off, waves hushing and murmuring below, the weather-worn heads of rocks peering up from between them. Somewhere down there, under the water, lay a tide pool that had once known a sandal and a girl named Priya.
I opened the jar and sent the ashes down to the frothing waves, to the salt and the water, the heart’s blood of the Earth. Back to the source. I opened the jar, and I set my sister free.
I crouched there for a while afterward, thinking. I could never replace Priya and even if I could, I wouldn’t want to. She wasn’t a palimpsest that could be scrubbed and rewritten. It might be easy to take up her cause, her devotion to water, as my own, but mimicking her wouldn’t honor her. She would never have wanted me to spend my life chasing her ghost.
I love the ocean but, I realized, I also love the land. I understand its yearning, its passions, I understand the earth’s struggle because it is the same as _my_ struggle–for water, for growth, for life. And Father is right: Punjab isn’t the land of five rivers anymore. If my people don’t adapt to the shifting landscape, we’ll soon share in the fishing towns’ destitution. As the ocean was Priya’s calling, so the desert will be mine.
Not knowing if I would ever return again, I bid the water a long farewell. A fitful breeze tugged strands of hair out of my braid and whipped them around my face. Down the shore, a cluster of inky black cormorants rode the waves. I leaned down and washed my hands in the surf one last time before turning back, back to the sand and the nimm trees and the desperate earth. I hoped the crops merchant still had seeds for sale. Jojoba and agave could fill my empty jars.
There’s work to be done. My family’s land is too wet for growing agave, but we can set up a rain catch when the monsoon comes and store the extra water for the almonds and the figs. We can even truck in new soil to spread over the old mango grove, building up for improved drainage. In another decade or two, the Thar will devour us, and the agaves will thrive.
I’ll be ready for the desert when it comes.
Gwendolyn Clare’s short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, Bewere the Night, Daily Science Fiction, and Bull Spec, among others. “Ashes on the Water” originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of Asimov’s. Her website is gwendolynclare.com.