I glanced back to make certain that Thomas and Rebekha were still with us and gave them a smile. The flash of two sets of teeth in the half light rewarded me. Behind them, the procession; behind that, the sight we had all become accustomed to seeing. From inside my shoes to the far horizon, water.
“Where will it end?” my mother asked and I shook my head. I had no reply for her. Instead, I lifted Arisa from my shoulders. She was sleepy now and I cradled her in my arms so that she might doze. She was heavy, heavier than when we began, as if she had absorbed the liquid around us, soaked it up like a sponge.
Mother stopped, one hand upon a convenient tree, the other raised to field my question.
“I am fine,” she said. “A moment only.” Around us, others filed past, while she pulled her shawl tighter and then we began our journey again in the way of all journeys: one foot in front of another. We could not see those feet, encased as they were in the murk of the water. It was enough to know that they were there, at the end of our sodden legs, pushing us onward.
I was weary of the walk. To survive, I turned the dial in my head, set it to another time of my choosing. I picked Festival. The last Festival, when Maria came and I loved her and it was dry.
She arrived on a Thursday, her best dress in a tiny case, her other clothes and one pair of shoes in a brown carrier bag. Her hair was loose. She looked wanton and I told her so, but she only laughed.
“Such a word, Harri,” she said. “So old-fashioned.”
There was nothing old-fashioned about Maria. She had been away, seen the world and chosen to abandon it. Eight years without her. When she left, she was a young woman on the brink of sophistication. She returned to me like a naughty child.
At first, her mischief made me cross, but she would only laugh and tease me for being so solemn.
“Lighten up, Harri, it’s not the end of the world,” she said.
And now it was. Surely only the end of the world could bring such chaos and misery?
In front of us, a woman stumbled and would have fallen into the waters, but for the strong arm of her companion. It would not do to fall. To bury your face in the stuff was to court death, for who knew what diseases lay within it.
It had begun to rain again. Maria’s child stirred in my arms, screwing up her nose and turning her head against my body to escape the shower. I prayed that was all it would be. The hailstones stung and a downpour now would dowse our already sunken spirits. In the distance, the remote hills beckoned, but also mocked. Could we travel so far, with so little strength and, in spite of water all around us, with so little to drink? It was days now since we had eaten a meal, existing on the dried meat and bitter chocolate of our survival packs. We chewed upon them reluctantly, for with the energy they brought came thirst. Each of us carried one single bottle of precious, pure, drinking water. I carried two: one for myself and one for Arisa. We sipped it, savoured it, knowing that it must last us until the end, until we reached the higher ground or until someone, some angel with helicopter or parachute, brought us fresh.
Along with everyone else, I bowed my head and plodded on.