This skeleton of an idea has been rattling around in my brain for years. Bare ideas really aren’t the problem for me. It’s putting flesh on the bones that gives me trouble, and this one didn’t turn out the way I expected it to when I started. I’m not sure how that works. In any case, I hope you enjoy the way I’ve embodied it.
Another dry spring, another crop of hard sour strawberries. I dropped the little berry into the grass, wiped my hands on my trousers and watched the bees come and go from the onion flowers. The onions had never failed, but they would be very hot. I wondered, what would onion honey would taste like? The flowers themselves were hot and papery.
You never could count on the weather, but at least when I was young it had been less actively hostile. New Pillar had been fertile, with spring rain and mild summer sun, before Re’s anger. Before the People of the Village had stopped following Re’s law. Before they burned the black blood of the earth and brought everything to hard baked soil, empty wells, and angry sunshine.
Now Re consistently burned off the clouds before they could drop more than a mist of rain. It didn’t even wet the skin. Re was always angry, it seemed, especially at those trying to make a living out of the soil. My own name, Mesedsure, was a common enough name for a farmer. It meant ‘Re hates him.’ As he hated nearly everyone else.
But I had a different job today: It was extra money and I still had a bicycle. I pulled the tarp from over my bike. It was rickety but I kept it oiled and rust free. If rust got to it, it would be eaten away in no time. I pulled on my rucksack and started the short ride into the village of New Pillar.
New Pillar was lucky, it still had a Machine. After the government stopped paying for them they slowly broke down one by one. People were resourceful and fixed them as long as they could. But ours would be gone too eventually. Then the dead would have to be buried in the ground like offal, dug up and eaten by coyotes.
I swerved around potholes and bounced over tufted chicory and couch grass. I passed the odd rusty bike coming the other way, but mostly people on foot or with handcarts.
I swung out around Nuru and her son – I turned and waved.
“Nuru!” I called.
“Mesedsure! Tell Halima how sorry I am.”
“I will,” I called back.
I sped up as much as I could on the broken road and soon came to New Pillar. The Machine was housed in the old town hall, and the main square spread out around it. The Disk of Re hung over the door, a red sun with two snakes coiled around it – one rearing up on each side. It was there to remind us of Re’s wrath. As if we needed reminding – every failed crop and empty well attested to the anger of Re.
Inside, Menmaatre was working quietly. I was never exactly sure what he did, and I had never seen the Machine.
“Menmaatre.” I said, by way of greeting.
He turned and motioned for me to follow him to a shelf full of jugs all more or less full of water. He pulled out one small jug and handed it to me.
“For Jedefre and Halima. A final gift from the dead.”
I took up the jug outside and bundled it into the pannier on the back of my bike.
A human body is mostly water if you think about it. But that was never more apparent than when I was making these deliveries, and I thought about it a lot while riding. The first few times I had been surprised how heavy water was, how it made my bicycle sluggish. There are forty litres of water in a human body, but in practice you can never process forty litres out. Twenty five, thirty, maybe less if there’s been a long sickness. I rode out of New Pillar and into the countryside.
Halima and Jedefre were outside in front of their small house. I jumped down from the bike and brought out the jug. There were formal words I had to say.
“A final gift from the dead.” Then I added, “Nuru sends her thoughts.”
Halima nodded and cradled the jug into her arms. She took it into the house without saying anything. Jedefre approached slowly.
“The people of New Pillar are good people,” he said quietly. “We obey the laws and cause no harm. And still, this.” He shook his head and looked at the ground.
“I know,” I replied, “but Re is very angry. We can only do our best and hope.”
There was nothing else to say. I had other deliveries to make so I headed back into town.