It was the only well in the village. Aida stood looking at the shimmering queue. Desert winds had blasted hills into non-existence. The dry riverbed she stood on with her sister as they carried their empty containers was an endless tract of cracked mud turned to rock.
Up ahead were the militia. Men dressed in singlets, wearing caps, their shapes morphing under the heat. They were their father’s killers, murderers of the village chief, and as the chief’s daughters they must not be caught.
Aida and her sister, Thelma, kept in step as the queue of people holding buckets and empty bottles moved forward. The shapes of the men guarding the water were becoming clearer now. Camouflage shirts, machine guns, skin shining with sweat as they leant and mocked villagers who had walked kilometres under the heat, and those who had fainted.
“They won’t know who we are, just keep looking at the ground,” Aida whispered.
Themba nodded, her braided hair shone in the sun. Aida said quietly, “I can see you. I can see what you are thinking. You must not remember him. You don’t know who he was or where he came from.”
Sandals made from tyre treads and held together by wire, bare feet with soles tougher than leather moving forward. They fell into silence as they reached the well. Three soldiers stood over a mound of earth shaped by hand; beneath bent-over bodies and hidden from view by boots and dust, a pool of water like mercury, barely visible, reflecting the blue sky, shivering as bowls and cups dragged and pulled it apart.
“Who are you? What are your names?” asked the soldier. The tip of a machine gun crossed Aida’s eyes. His boots glistened, grenades were attached to his belt; Aida glanced to the side at the line of people looking away.
“Who are you? What are your names?”
“We came for water. We have no water,” Aida said. Her sister studied the earth.
“You think you’re special? The way you stood there, the way you were walking, looking up at us, you think we did not see it? Looking at the sky as well were you? No one does this. You are not humble, you must deserve the water. What makes you so special?”
“We’re not special sir,” Aida pleaded.
Thelma knelt, fingers shaking as she held the container. They knew this man. They had seen him when he was young, the son of a government official. Thelma’s lips looked as dry as sandpaper, she reached out and took the soldier’s hand and kissed it, and held his leg and reached out as he pushed her away.
“Please help us.”
Below them, fingerprints and handprints frozen in clay, and deeper still the shimmering gorged pool. Aida struggled to keep her balance, Themba lifted a trembling hand for support. Another man approached, they could hear his boots; his voice as harsh as death.
“You there. You. Where you from?” A man in camouflage greens, with a sweat-stained cap and a pot-belly, striding over the bleached ground and waving his hands.
“You, private, step back.”
The sergeant squinted down at them, stopped and looked again, turned, laughed at the sky and clapped his hands.
“They belong to him, they are his daughters. Ha. Ha. This is indeed a wonderful day.”
Aida filled an empty container with brown water, a machete glinted in the sun.
“You there, you, stand up.”
Aida put the container down, Themba straightened the folds of her skirt. The loud man gave orders, they must follow to the dark place.
Large metal hooks hung from the ceiling, a pool of grey light outlined the top of an electric bench saw; the building where they would spend their last hours smelt of stale wood chips and animals.
Minutes passed and soon Aida sensed the leader above them as they lay belly down on the floor; and even before he spoke, before he explained the wrongs of the world, how their father’s death was a necessity, that the sacrifice of their own bodies would be good for cause and country, she could sense how it would end.
The loud man walked away to a corner of the shed, where a bottle of Johnny Walker, a radio, and several bottles of spring water were huddled. Men and women Aida had seen before, enemies of her father, stood laughing. Not knowing what was to come, that was the worst.
The touch of a finger against her wrist. Themba’s fingers and thumb reaching for Aida’s hand. Aida felt something metallic, round and heavy and difficult to hold, locked in Themba’s shaking hand. A grenade, stolen from a soldier’s belt, hidden in the folds of a skirt, and held fast in her hand as they were led away.
Aida felt a surge of weakness. The man’s voice was loud and grated against the walls. There was a table, hands being shaken, unopened water bottles. Flanked on either side, bent over, smoking and talking, two soldiers of the militia. A newspaper. The body of a dead man slumped against a wall.
Aida turned her head slowly to see the pin of the grenade in her sister’s mouth. She touched her lips. Themba grunted and tossed the grenade and it rolled over the cement and kept rolling and stopped between the loud man’s legs.
A soldier swatted a fly. The loud man laughed and turned and looked down at them, a machete glinted in his hand. The sound of a truck. Low voices. A light, a spark. A blast of air, a flash, then the ringing that wouldn’t stop.
Minutes were like hours. Themba reached out, instead of exploding like the bodies of the soldiers, the water bottles had rolled and nestled near their heads. Aida sat up slowly, undid the cap of one and handed it to Themba, watching the water dance in the light. She found another bottle, lifted it and drank.
The drought was over.
John Grant writes from Sydney, Australia. When he’s not writing and reading his favourite authors, he spends his time working as an analyst. His passions include writing, travelling, surfing, and math. You can reach him at: email@example.com