Cleanse

Before the sun was up, Amur was woken up by the sound of the water flowing into the stream. At first, he didn’t believe his ears, so he slowly crept out of his blanket to investigate, careful not to disturb his sister, who was sharing the blanket. It was a noiseless exit to the kitchen, but he still peeked his head back to make sure that his sister was still asleep. She had been known to wake up and catch him stealing a late night snack far too often for Amur’s comfort. He paused in the small, dingy kitchen. Yesterday’s clay pans had cracked, so Amur’s mother had put a fresh mold of clay to bake near the fire. He waited for the fire to stop crackling for a while, and he waited for his own breathing to calm down. Finally, he could hear the ripples again. If he actually managed to accomplish the deed, his family would be so proud.

Amur’s mother would ordinarily have raised serious objections to Amur stepping out in the darkness of the forest with barely his sleeping rags on. But then, she was asleep, so all was well. Amur tried to pick out a pitcher from the shelf of clay utensils. The shadows from the fire were misleading and Amur knew he was traditionally clumsy, so he paused. He tried to remember the technique the neighbor’s cat had employed in order to access their fruit, and having enough confidence to pull it off, he hooked his finger on a particularly dominant edge and tried to whisk it off the shelf. This was planned so as to not disturb the existing order of the utensils.

Instead of smoothly landing off the shelves, the pitcher scraped along the base of the clay shelf. Amur had underestimated how heavy it would be. But there was no harm in trying again, as long as he didn’t break something. He wondered if he had a shorter, more accessible way to make this happen. And he spied his own dinner bowl. It was small, and it wouldn’t fill as much as a pitcher, but then it was completely his responsibility what he did with his own bowl. At any rate if he broke it, he would then ply his sister with enough sweet fruit in order to get her to make him a new one. But then, clay was becoming hard to get these days, with very little silted soil, so wouldn’t his mother still be angry with him…?

Amur crept out into the night, armed with only his bowl. Everything was so much more darker now, and the crickets in the forest were surprisingly loud. The wind was chilly, and Amur thought he heard footsteps in the grass. Indeed, if there was going to be a predator, the only possible options left to Amur were to either throw the bowl at it and/or run. Please don’t make me annoy my mother again, he prayed to the Forest Deity who watched over them. I really want to keep this bowl intact.

He waited for the crickets to die down until he could hear the ripples again. Stealthily, like a predator himself, he crept towards the sound. He was going to capture the water. He had navigated himself eventually to a point over a rock face where he could literally hear the stream gurgling, and it made him happy to think that he had found so much water. If only he could capture it all. Amur regretted not bringing the pitcher with him instead. He had almost reached the bank, and the ground felt soft under his feet. Good, he had also managed to find more clay. He bent his knees over the mud, not caring that it stained his bed-rags and then extended his bowl to scoop up some of the water. The stream, which was rippling over the protruding rocks shone in the moonlight. It made the rocks glitter and the plants shine, and Amur wondered how it must feel to actually be wet and soft, like the clay itself. As he stretched his bowl out, however, the current moved beyond the reach of his hand, alternating the flow direction. Indeed, as soon as the liquid sensed his presence, the flow of the stream had narrowed, and it was too dark to find out the source now.

“I just want to touch you,” murmured Amur. The current suddenly expanded and the water splashed his hands. It felt beautiful, although it stung afterwards. The experience was very short as all the droplets raced down his hand in some desperate need to join back the parent body of water. Well, at least it was real water and not some illusion. He brought his bowl out again and in a swift movement plunged it under the surface of the liquid in order to collect some. The water, sensing his movement, immediately reduced to a stream of few droplets and those too would soon disappear to merge into the parent body of liquid. Amur’s bowl scraped the hard rock surface and was left with a lasting scratch.

“Please,” asked Amur of what was now the rapidly drying rock surface. He didn’t mean to offend the water just by collecting some. You don’t understand how important this is.

But he could no longer hear the ripples and the ground under his feet was drying up rapidly. Great, another failed expedition in the search of water. He wandered around in the semi-darkness, unsure of how to get home. He needed some sort of sounding beacon to bring him back, and he waited till he heard his father’s snores. Again, amidst the crickets, and the possible threat of other predators and the occasional owl, Amur tracked himself back to his humble abode, returned his bowl to the shelf and was careful to arrange it inconspicuously. His mother might not notice, but his sister could blame him if she sensed that he had been stealing food in his bowl. Ah well, then he would break hers.

He crept back into his floor mat. His sister, having seized the opportunity of having the blanket to herself had now comfortably rolled herself up in it, and was clearly fast asleep. Amur tried tugging on the blanket gently. She did not budge. He then tried to be a bit more forcible and his sister made an annoyed grunt as she sensed more of the fabric slip away from her. Before she could protest, Amur wrapped himself up in whatever little portion had come free from the struggle and lay in wait quietly. It was lucky that he was such a scrawny figure, or his sister would have noticed.

He couldn’t sleep. All night long he was continuously woken up by the shadow of the echoes of the water. He dreamed of its beautiful glistening form and shape, of the sensation of the splash, of the droplets run away from him. The way the liquid had seeped between the cracks of his fingers and then how it had collected itself on the rock surface. Amur’s mother was surprised to find that he was the first one awake. “What are you doing up so early, Little One?” said she, rubbing her hands through his rough hair. Amur liked to feel her touch. On the nights that she would be away hunting, or engaged in some other forest ritual with his sister, Amur would wish that she sung him to sleep. Amur’s mother knew songs only of the Water God, as that was the music she had been raised with. Little did she know that her son had been venturing out into the wild looking for the very myth that her legends sang about.

Amur didn’t answer immediately. He reached for his bowl and asked her if she had something to drink. She poured him some of the drink. All these years, in Amur’s life, they had never drunk water. They only drunk a clear green distilled liquid, which they mixed with everything else, including the clay. It was bland and it was tasteless and it merely slid down Amur’s throat. It never made him feel satisfied or refreshed or even cooler than before, not like how the water in Amur’s mother’s stories would appear to be.

“What happened to our water, ma?” he asked.

He really is obsessed with this idea, mused his mother. “The Water Gods became angry that we couldn’t treat them right and so they hid themselves away in secluded quarters.”

“If I pray really earnestly to the Water Gods, will I someday get to drink it?”

The idea that the boy would even be able to see real water in his lifetime was very rare. “Have you even seen water, dear?”

“I dream of it,” dissembled Amur, not wishing to tell his mother of his nocturnal exploits. I’ve even risked my life to touch it. I hear the sound every night, and I’m waiting to someday bring a back a bowl of it for you.

“That’s where it’s meant to be, dear. Water is something imaginary and beautiful. It’s what the Gods would drink to make themselves more powerful. We mortals can never capture it and consume it.”

“But why?”

Amur’s mother was surprised that he wanted to hear this story, because she had already told him that many times. But there was nothing like an early story in order to get Amur to be more compliant.

“Once upon a time, our people could drink the water, but then our ancestors defiled it. They killed the living beings that called it their home and put all of their dirt and filth into it, until it wasn’t water anymore.”

“But what if we promise not to defile it anymore?”

“That’s not how things happen in life dear. If you miss the opportunity once, you will never get it back.”

Amur’s conscience reminded him that he was unable to get the water from yesterday and he may never even see it again.

“If I pray really earnestly to the Water Gods? Really really earnestly?”

“I would be happier if you applied yourself as earnestly to things that are more real to us, dear,” said his mother gently. She didn’t want to take away the fairy tale charm of the story, but at the end it was a moral parable, and she hoped he focused on that as much as he did on the other aspects of the story.

Just wait, ma. Someday, I’ll be able to fill my bowl with real water and bring it back. Someday, I’ll even be able to fill the big pitcher. And then we can all drink like the Gods.

“There might be a cloud burst today, Syr,” said Amur’s father addressing himself to Amur’s mother.

“Oh? And who has forecast this?” Amur’s mother was still preparing breakfast to fill Amur’s bowl and was therefore too busy to process what she was hearing.

“The territories in the front have been experiencing the cloud burst season and it is likely that more of it will come our way.”

“Well, if you say so,” shrugged Amur’s mother. There was really nothing one could do to avoid a disaster, especially if it was as imminent as a cloud burst.

“I don’t think you would take it this casually if you knew that it was going to happen right over our heads.”

“Is that what the forecast said?” asked Amur’s mother, suddenly escalating up in alarm. Amur thought it was odd how alarmed she became only after she heard that it was going to happen in their region. He supposed that disasters would matter less if they happened elsewhere, even though families like theirs could also be caught up in one of them. Amur watched his parents talk as he ate his meal quietly.

“But there hasn’t been one in three years!” protested Syr, as she let more of the information sink in.

“That doesn’t stop a new one from happening now,” supplied Amur’s father. Amur had survived three cloud bursts, yet he had never witnessed any. He knew they were bad, but he still didn’t know why. During cloud bursts, everyone in the tribe or village would be asked to stay underground until it was over. Usually, there was heavy smoke and fog, when they emerged and several cleansing rituals would be performed before people could go back to their daily lives.

“When did you find out?”

“Today morning, the winds have been carrying the news.” It was an euphemism for knowledge that had been spread at the village council.

“When does the burst happen?”

“They say anytime between today and the next week.”

“That’s an awfully long time to lock ourselves up in hiding.”

“I think we should start packing enough for a week and begin evacuation today.”

“How do you expect me to pack everything up on such short notice? And besides, how absurd it is that we have to stay in for a week? Why can’t they be more specific?”

“Syr, they do not control the Wind Gods either.”

Amur’s mother sighed as she mentally evaluated the magnitude of their escaping endeavor. “Mekang! We have to get packing. Another cloud burst is happening and I need your help!” Amur’s sister sent back an incomprehensible, lazy groan in response. Despite his mother’s indignation, Amur could tell that she wasn’t really annoyed with his father. She had planned several of these before and they were no more the terror they used to be, at least as long as everyone stayed inside. But before he helped his mother, he needed to ask one last question. It was rumor that he had picked up in the telling of the legends, but he wasn’t quite sure until he heard it.

“Ma, is it true that water rains down on us during cloud bursts?”

Amur’s father scoffed at him. “Boy, you better grow up out of your water stories soon. That thing doesn’t exist.”

“Leave him alone, Yenisei,” said Syr quietly. She firmly believed that a child was entitled to his dreams.

Hours later, when Syr was rushing everyone to get inside, Mekang had already carried most of their requirements for the week. The lines into the shelter were orderly and precise, and most of the other families had already settled in.

“Where’s your brother?” asked Syr of Mekang. Mekang found it difficult to characteristically shrug as she was carrying both the pitchers and everyone’s bowl. “I don’t know,” she said. Syr looked around at all the other families milling into the caves. The camps were being set up and the  fabric tents unfolded. The children were either helping their parents move in, or playing with their own peer groups. At first, it didn’t bother Syr that Amur was not there. She naturally assumed he was playing with the other children and probably enjoying his last few moments outside. Yenisei and Syr had completed installing their own settlement,when Mekang wanted to spend some time with her friends.  Syr began to re-arrange the cutlery and the pottery. She knew that the cloud burst could bring along more clay and that was very possibly the only good outcome of a cloud burst.

“I thought I saw a scratch on his bowl today,” offered Mekang as she watched her mother re-arrange them. She had been granted a few minutes leave to go spend time with her friends and she thought it was very unfair that she had been inside working with her parents while her younger brother had no such responsibility.

“Yes, that’s what I want to talk to him about.” How did the bowl, which was comfortably nestled against the shelves after their dinner manage to land up with the sort of abrasion you could get only from scratching a rock?

Eventually, the large groups of the clan dispersed to their own individual tents and the rumbling of the skies and the earth could be heard. It’s coming, it’s coming, the clan members whispered to themselves, drawing their children away from the opening and rushing back to their tents. Syr pulled Mekang away by her arm, but nowhere in the chaos could Amur be found. She assumed that he had probably taken refuge in someone else’s tent and so she went around calling his name. But he was nowhere to be found.

Amur was outside the cave. It had been sealed shut and he felt happy knowing his family was safe, but he did not want to be denied the opportunity to actually witness a cloud burst. He was scared of what it would bring and he knew that he was all alone outside here.

Meanwhile, inside the caves, Syr and Yenisei asked everyone of their son’s whereabouts. “He has gone to find water,” said one of Amur’s play-mates innocently. Little did the child know how he had broken two adult hearts in one sweep.

“I should have guessed it from all the water stories he wanted to hear,” sobbed Syr on Yenisei’s shoulder. He stayed silent and simply patted her head gently.

Outside, the sky was getting darker and the sun had already been hidden. There was angry rumbling and sparks flew across the sky. Amur was amazed at the show of power. The Wind Gods had never appeared so formidable before.

That’s when the first drop fell. It was water, indeed. One small silvery droplet that was born out of the grey heavens and instead of rushing back to its origin, the droplet obeyed gravity and landed on the ground, on the grass that was fueled by the green liquid and the forest and it’s citizens that inhabited it. Amur watched the first contact warily, and the droplet vaporized. The grass reacted violently with it and soon, it was vaporized in a hiss. As more droplets began to form, a great rising cloud of  the vaporized smoke rose up. The sound of the hissing was strong and violent, and this was more so confirmed by the fact that a strong pungent odor followed. Everything that was comprised of the green liquid was soon up in a white suspension cloud, and Amur realized how important it was for him to get shelter. What had stung his hands before was a short moment of contact, he was soon to be deluged and suffer an extremely painful reaction.

Except Amur was unafraid. An opportunity that he thought he had lost had come back to him. He wasn’t giving up now. He felt around his pockets and realized that on this momentous occasion, he had no clay bowl, let alone a pitcher. As the drizzle began and the white cloud hovering over the land thickened and the thunder was soon to be drowned out by the nasty hissing of rapidly oxidizing grass, Amur climbed his way upwards on a rock surface, closer to the sky. He was not going to miss out on the Water God’s blessings. Knowing that it would probably be the last thing he ever did, took a deep breath of the pungent vapor that was now billowing around him, threw his head back and opened his head to the sky. Ma, I’m drinking it. I’m actually drinking it. He waited for the first drop to burn its way through his body.

He did not live to see his entire world dissolve around him, leaving only the bare rock faces and the underground caves intact. Mekang, who was left as the only child let herself be washed by the tears of her heart-broken mother and sobbed quietly, struggling to absorb the fact that she would never have anyone to wrestle with the blanket over.

—–
“We’ve flushed out the test tube from the last test’s results. All specimens have been cleaned, and we are ready to begin again.”
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