Cool, Sweet Water
A Short Story
By Julie Jailall
This short story is from a collection of five short stories by Julie Jailall entitled Sharda. A World-Caribbean-Guyana Literature Series. Publisher: Roraima Publisher, Canada, 2010
Sharda kicked off the thin cotton sheet, and sat up, listening. Is it a helicopter? Or, is it the bulldozer…? She sprang from the bed to the window in one leap, and there, she saw it—a thing like a monster ravaging the trees.
It was Saturday morning, bright and sunny—the type that usually inspired ten-year-old Sharda into daring deeds and unthinkable challenges. High up in the sky above the trees, the sun was already unleashing its heat on the parched, thirsty landscape. Regardless of how cruel the sun might seem to most of the villagers, to Sharda, sunshine meant playing outside, creating new games, and best of all, getting a chance to visit Mr. Chooch in his fruit walk.
Fifteen minutes later, Sharda announced, “I’m going to fill up the water now,” as she hurriedly stuffed her mouth with the last piece of roti.
“No, it’s too soon to go right now. You have to finish the kitchen work first. Remember? You know that.” It was just as Sharda expected. Lucille would not let her go. Sharda’s job was to fetch the water and clean the yard, but Lucille always made her do the kitchen work as an extra. She was always tempted to tell Mai that Lucille worked her too hard but she knew that Mai would only say that, “Lucille is your big sister and you should do as she says. Even though, deep down Sharda resented the extra work, she still would do it. But today, as much as she would like to follow Lucille’s orders, it was imperative that she left the house right now.
I am going for the water no matter what you say my dear big sister, decided Sharda, defiantly.
“If I go now, there won’t be plenty people there, and I will be able to come back quickly,” protested Sharda as she rinsed her little galvanized bucket at the sink. Sharda really wanted to run straight out the door and be gone. She knew that the bulldozer worked fast, and she had got to go to tell Mr. Chooch. She didn’t hear a word Lucille said.
“I’ll come back quickly, you’ll see.” Sharda dashed out the kitchen door, and was gone.
Tall ginger lilies waved their big bunches of white blossoms from the roadside parapets, but Sharda was paying no attention today. Her little bare feet pounded in the dust as she sprinted along the bone-dry dirt road.
It couldn’t be happening, she reasoned. He is an old man, and people are supposed to be sorry for old people. Mr. Chooch had said that the government would help him plant his land. So why is the government bulldozer here, now, bulldozing his land? Has Mr. Chooch been tricked?
For the past year or so, Sharda remembered they were talking about bulldozing any land that was not put to good use and planting sugar canes instead. Could it be that Mr. Chooch is doing what everyone else is doing—planting sugar canes? That seemed impossible to Sharda, for she knew Mr. Chooch loved his trees. Of course, it is true that the fruit trees on his land needed nurturing, so they could bear better, but didn’t he plan to hire someone to help him?
Sharda’s memory of her first experience in Mr. Chooch’s trees was as vivid as if it happened yesterday.
* * * * *
She was on her way to the dreary water pond one day, when she heard, in Mr. Chooch’s trees, the familiar cry of a baby bird at the mercy of a hawk. Way up in the trees she saw the nest. A smooth throw with a brick frightened the hawk away, and knocked down the contents of the nest. Sharda flung her bucket away, and dashed for the bushes despite the cuts she might get from the sharp razor-grass. Just as she picked up the little fluffy thing from under the fallen leaves, she turned around and came face to face with Mr. Chooch. Sharda froze.
“What are you doing here? Aren’t you afraid? There are snakes in this bush. What’s that?” Mr. Chooch was standing over Sharda with a cutlass in his hand. His eyes were like sunken marbles in folds of dry skin. In a deep, husky voice, he said, “My God, that’s a bird! What you gonna do with that? Cook it?”
Sharda recoiled briefly. So this is Mr. Chooch! She looked at his hand how it held the cutlass, stood her ground and looked him right into his marble eyes. “No! I’m gonna keep it. A hawk was going to eat it. I saved it.” She hugged the fragile feathered thing to her cheek, backed off and looked around for her little bucket.
“Okay, so how you gonna do that?” He scrutinized her as if deep in thought. Then, Mr. Chooch raised himself and blinked his eyes twice. Sharda didn’t know what to say, as she was unsure what he was going to do. Finally, she peeked at him and said softly,
“I’ll take it home.”
After a long pause, Chooch said, “Come, I have something you can put it in.” He then turned around, and began to cut a way out of the grass towards his house. From the back, Mr. Chooch could have been Sharda’s Dad—big, in straggly chambray shirt and patched-up brown khaki pants. Sharda began to follow slowly from behind. She hung the galvanized bucket in the crook of her arm, cradling the bird to her chest. As they walked, her eyes were turned upward, in wonderment at what she saw. Overhead, were huge bunches of sapodillas, guavas and mangoes dangling from overburdened branches. She knew that some people thought Chooch was a stingy old brute, while others thought he was just poor. Sharda, however, always thought he was lucky to have all these fruit trees. With bird in hand, she stumbled forward as she tried not to step on the soft, rotting fruit in the grass. She was more awed than scared. Chooch did not turn around, not once, as they slowly cut their way to his house.
Soon, they arrived in a small clearing in which stood Mr. Chooch’s house. It seemed as though house and man had bargained not to outdo each other in appearance. Like Mr. Chooch’s head, the roof was a brown shaggy mass of weathered dew grass, left unattended for months or years blown by the wind this way and that. The boards on the house had the same color as Mr. Chooch’s clothes—dingy gray with holes and patches of black spots. And, it didn’t matter which of them began slouching forward first, because now, both of them drooped. All around, towering plum trees hugged the house in a cool, shaded spot. Tall, thin grass grew sparsely in the shaded yard covering rich, black dirt.
Mr. Chooch pointed to a bench at the side of the house for Sharda to sit. The bench was nothing more than a greenheart plank supported by two rotten logs. Sharda placed the bird gently in her galvanized bucket on her lap, and munched on a big juicy plum she had plucked while Mr. Chooch went around to the back of the house. Soon, he returned with a tiny birdcage made out of mukru bark.
“If you don’t decide to cook it, that bird will live to see you become like me. Do you know what bird that is?” Sharda saw the twinkle in his eyes as he unfastened the door of the cage.
“It’s a blue saki,” she said, as she lifted the bird out of the bucket and placed it tenderly inside the cage. Bird droppings were left in the bucket but Sharda wasn’t sure whether she should ask Mr. Chooch for water to wash it.
“Birds get thirsty too, you know. Let’s go get some water.” That was when Mr. Chooch showed her his secret water spring under the jamoon tree.
Sharda couldn’t believe what she saw. A constant flow of dark water seeping from the white sand that surrounded a large pool. Lots of water, more than Mr. Chooch or a whole village could use up. And to think that all these months, she had to trudge to the dreary water pond one whole mile away. Sharda stooped, cupped her hands and drank. It was the coolest, sweetest water she had ever tasted. She scooped up another handful and savored a second drink. And a third, and a fourth. All this time, Mr. Chooch stood by, watched and smiled. Sharda picked up the bucket and looked at Mr. Chooch. “Can I….”
“Don’t you ever tell a soul. Or you will never taste the water again or even glimpse at my trees,” interrupted Mr. Chooch before Sharda could finish. His tone wasn’t threatening, however. Nevertheless, Sharda knew better than to argue. No one must know that she had been talking to the “mean old devil,” or she would never be able to come here again. And, Mr. Chooch’s natural reservoir, which was cleaner, closer and better than the dreary water pond, must also become Sharda’s secret. And it did. No one, not even Lucille ever discovered how Sharda got back so quickly whenever she went to fetch the water from the water pond.
After that, Sharda’s visits to Mr. Chooch were the high point of her day. She would tell him about the blue saki and what happened in the village, and he would offer her every kind of fruit in his yard. But, he also told her about the bulldozer that would come one day.
“Have you ever seen a bulldozer?” he asked. They were pulling at vines that had wrapped themselves around a guava tree.
“Yes, but from far away. I’ve never been near one,” said Sharda.
“Well, it’s ugly, like a monster—like a big, hungry caterpillar. It eats everything. You don’t want to be near one.”
“I’m not frightened,” said Sharda. Mr. Chooch wrinkled jaws stretched into a broad smile, and then his face became serious.
“It might come one day, right here, on this same spot where we’re standing. I might not be here when it comes.”
“You’re making that up, Mr. Chooch. I’m still not frightened.” She tugged harder at the vines. She refused to believe that anything would happen to Mr. Chooch, or to his green luscious empire. Mr. Chooch said nothing else.
* * * * *
Sharda eased herself through the barbed wire fence to take a short cut to Mr. Chooch’s house across the pasture. She knew every tree as though she had planted them herself. As soon as she rounded the bend by the buru buru bush, she staggered to a halt. “Oh…,” was all that escaped from her gaping mouth as she surveyed the wide expanse of nothingness, only broken black dirt. The bulldozer had been here. The etay trees under which she usually sat on her way back from Mr. Chooch’s spring, were shattered and pushed into a heap. They were ripped and torn. The tall buckle-back whitee tree that was laden with ripe juicy pods was crushed and shredded. Sharda felt her knees began to tremble and her legs became numb. The galvanized bucket slipped out of her fingers and tumbled down a slope. Tears were welling up in her eyes. All the trees—her trees—were gone.
After several minutes, Sharda recovered. The galvanized bucket had rolled and rested upturned against a mound of raw earth. She picked it up and tried to brush away the bits and pieces of mud. Slowly, she turned to look in the direction of Mr. Chooch’s house and his fruit trees. They were still there!
As if she were being chased by a rabid dog, Sharda bounded for the fruit trees. The smell of freshly hewn dirt and trees was getting stronger. The roar of the bulldozer was louder. Sharda leapt into the razor grass and burrowed her way to the house. The bulldozer was now in Mr. Chooch’s front yard. She ran up to the machine, yelling, “Stop, stop, someone lives here.” Then, she ran over and shook Chooch’s door.
The man on the bulldozer stopped the machine. “Who you’re looking for?” he asked, but Sharda lost all logical explanations in her confusion, and ignored him. The bulldozer was now here, and Mr. Chooch was inside. She knocked and kicked at the door but no answer. Then, she looked at the man on the bulldozer and pointed to Mr. Chooch’s house.
“That man is gone. He’s gone to the alms house. The Government took him. Who’re you to him?” the man said. Sharda stood speechless and still. With the galvanized bucket still dangling on her arm, she moved mindlessly to Mr. Chooch’s water spring, but the plum trees and jamoon tree had been already uprooted, and shoved over to cover it. No more cool, sweet water.
The alms house? Sharda knew that anyone who went there never came back. They went there only if they had no family, and they were soon to die. She bit her lower lip to keep from crying. She turned to look towards the remaining trees, the ones that she and Mr. Chooch had struggled to maintain. She couldn’t bear it anymore. Her mouth twitched downwards, and her lips trembled in shock and sorrow. Soon, she began to holler uncontrollably among the ruins in Chooch’s backyard, her tears flowing like a water spring down her little cheeks. The sound of her cry resounded mournfully across the empty landscape. After several minutes, Sharda wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, and then looked towards the water pond far, far away. The sun’s heat and the blithering haze rising from the empty landscape suddenly seemed overbearing to young Sharda.
Then the bulldozer revved up again, but Sharda didn’t look back to see. She heard only the deafening sounds of crashing old boards as she ran to the dreary water pond one whole mile away, the galvanized bucket dangling from her arm and tears streaming down her face. Lucille would want to know why she was taking so long to return with the water today.
The editor of THE ARTS FORUM Column, Ameena Gafoor, can be reached by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone: 592 227 6825.