Robbie and Amara lay on a tightly woven reed mat beneath an open window, the spare light of the crescent moon casting the faintest of shadows. His arm rested protectively on her belly. The thin blanket that had covered them lay crumpled on the floor, thrown off in the dead of night and heat. A cool, light breeze blew off the water through the open window, washing over their sleeping bodies in an undulating rhythm that kept time with the passing centuries. Waves lapped against the quonset hut’s foundation.
Robbie drew a deep, choking breath as one coming up for air after too long underwater. He coughed and it woke him. He bolted upright in bed and Amara woke, too.
“What is it?” Amara put a hand on his back and felt through the well-toned muscle and bone the panic that lay buried inside. “Your heart is beating very fast.”
Robbie took several breaths in rapid succession then pulled her to him.
“You’re cold,” Robbie said.
“So are you.” Amara grabbed the blanket and pulled it up over them. Robbie relaxed and they both lay down on the reed mat again. A rustle just below the hut refocused Robbie’s attention and he was out of bed in an instant.
“It’s only a mouse,” Amara said.
“We’re surrounded by water.”
“Not everywhere is water. Much is just mud. The water is high now because of the spring rains.”
“Well, how will he get out?”
“There’s always a way out,” Amara said. “Besides, mice are excellent swimmers. Please.” She held the blanket up, an invitation for him to join her.
Robbie lay down next to her. “Sorry. Just a little jumpy.”
“It is because no one has been here for so long. You do not see this well because we come in the middle of the night. I’m sure it is very dirty in here.”
“I thought you said it was a little fishing hut.”
“Yes. It belonged to my grandfather’s father. Of course, when he left he had no more use for it, but my uncles still came here.” Amara’s voice stumbled. “Now there is no one to use it.” Robbie hugged her closed and smoothed her hair.
She nestled in. “Tell me about your dream.”
“I dreamt that American troops were driving their jeeps through the marshes. They were coming from Baghdad on their way to Basra and the most direct route was straight through the middle. The jeeps had these pontoons on them that kept them afloat when the water got deep. There was a place in the water where it rose about six inches like it was going over something massive below. The lead jeep got stuck on it. It turned out to be a remnant of one of Saddam’s dams. Everyone had to get out and figure another way across. They unloaded their mashufs and troops started fanning out across the marshes in their canoes. I was watching from the reeds. Somebody came up behind me and grabbed me by the throat. I started choking. That”s when I woke up.” Robbie rubbed Amara’s arm and gazed into her penetrating eyes.
Amara placed her hand over his heart. “You are safe now. They will not find you until you are ready to be found.”
Robbie kissed the top of her head. She kissed his lips.
“Dawn will soon come,” Amara said. “Let us sleep until it does.”
“Then you can show me where we are.”
At dawn, Robbie and Amara climbed into the mashuf they had borrowed from her uncle, a boat builder whose shop sat at the tip of what remained of the Al Hariz marsh. A mullet, small and bony by any standard, rose to the surface in search of breakfast. Robbie jumped at the splash that signaled its return to safe water.
“It is just a fish,” Amara said, handing Robbie a paddle. “And a small one at that. They are returning now that the dam has been destroyed.”
“Well, that’s good, isn’t it? I mean, about the dam.” Robbie started to paddle in time with Amara.
“Yes, it is very good. But it is not enough. The Minister of Irrigation estimates that when the dam was breached over one hundred and fifty quadrillion gallons of water flooded back into the channels. This was only enough to return the water to the two closest villages. At one time, there were hundreds of these villages. At this rate it will take a thousand years.”
“Well, can’t they just open another dam?”
“They have opened all the dams. The water is no longer here.”
“Where is it?”
“Still in Syria, and Turkey, being diverted for many types of projects. Agricultural, hydroelectric. Who knows what else? Saddam gave them this water. He stole it from his own people.”
“We’ll get it back.”
“It is much more complicated than that. Here people fight over the right to use the water. It is not so in your country. But still you see the beginnings of it in your American west. I think that one day, people in America will fight over water just as we do.”
The marshes were silent but for the lapping of the water on the shore and the slight rustle of the bulrushes. A fog had settled over the marshes and Robbie wiped at the drops of water that collected on his face. A bullfrog croaked. Robbie jumped, then relaxed.
Amara smiled and turned briefly to look at him. “You never fully get used to the noises that the marshes make. To live here is to constantly be on alert. So my grandfather has told me.”
They rowed together in silence until Amara directed the mashuf through vegetation so dense and intertwined that Robbie felt they were inside a tunnel. When they emerged on the other side, the first rays of the day had filtered through the reeds, creating a mosaic pattern across the surface of the water. A blue heron caught breakfast and retreated to safer ground, flying directly overhead.
“A most beneficent sign,” Amara said, bunching her fingers together and touching them first to her heart, then her lips and finally her forehead. She stopped paddling momentarily and squeezed Robbie’s leg. “There it is. The house of my uncle, Sayyid. We will be safe here.”
Robbie and Amara docked their boat on the small island where another hut stood.
“Who’s there?” said a voice groggy with sleep. Inside the occupants of the house stirred, the first rustling of the day. Amara tied the canoe and grabbed Robbie’s arm just as Sayyid Sahain appeared in the doorway wearing the conventional robe and turban, but no sandals. In the misty morning light, Amara couldn’t clearly see the face of her uncle, still pressed with sleep, his hastily donned turban slightly askew, but she recognized the proud and encompassing stance of her father, and for a moment she believed he walked among them again. The sound of her uncle’s voice, so like her own father’s, did nothing to lessen her joy.
“Who is there?”
“It is me, uncle. Amara.”
“Amara! Is it you? I had word, but I did not dare hope…. God be praised.” Amara’s uncle scrambled down to the dock and grabbed Amara by both elbows before crushing her to his chest in a warm embrace. “God has blessed me once again,” Sayyid said. He held her at arm’s length. “To look at you is to look again upon my brother’s face.” He wrapped an avuncular arm around her and patted her back before releasing her, then turned to Robbie, a question in his eyes. “And who is it that assures your safe travel?” he asked, sizing Robbie up.
“This is my friend, Robbie, Uncle. He is an American. He wishes to help our people. But first, Uncle, we must assure his safety. He has left his captain without permission.” Sayyid raised his eyebrows in disapproval.
Amara continued. “The Americans believe he is dead. There was a car bombing and…. they did not find him.” Amara bowed her head and clasped her hands together. “I’m sorry, Uncle. I do not mean to bring you trouble.” Sayyid studied Robbie’s face then looked to his niece’s bowed head.
“Amara. You could not bring more trouble than that devil, Saddam, has brought to his own people. Every day I ask God why he has allowed this. But God has turned his face away from us.” He lifted Amara’s chin that she might look him directly in the eyes. “You were always the impetuous one. By the grace of Mohammed, had you been born a boy I believe you would have stopped the devil himself.”
Amara smiled at her uncle and he stroked her cheek.
“Time has taught me many things,” Sayyid continued. “For the memory of your father, but more important, for you, I swear I will keep your friend safe among us until the time he chooses to leave.”
Sayyid turned to Robbie. “Welcome, sahib.” He took Robbie’s hand in one of his and with the other clapped him on the back. “You are safe here.”
“Thank you. . .”
“Call me Uncle as my niece does,” Sayyid said.
“Uncle,” Robbie repeated. Following Amara’s lead, he bowed his head slightly to indicate his respect.
“Come, come,” Sayyid said. “Let us go inside. You will be hungry, yes? We will take a meal together and you will tell me of your plans.”
Inside Sayyid’s wife, Fawzia, was already grinding coffee. Sayyid made the introductions and Amara embraced her uncle’s new wife before the woman retreated to the hearth to prepare a meal worthy of visitors.
“Fawzia is a good woman,” Sayyid said. He directed them to several cushions scattered around a small round table barely a foot off the floor.
“I am sorry for you, Uncle. For my aunt. We had heard, but were unable to make the trip.”
“Thank you, niece.” Sayyid bowed his head and touched his bunched fingers to his heart, mouth and forehead. “She was a very good woman, dead now these five years.”
“How did she die?” Robbie asked.
“From Saddam’s poison water.”
“Saddam poisoned the water? But why is everything not dead?”
“He is the devil,” Sayyid said.
“I thought it was because of the dams,” Robbie said. “I didn’t know he used poison, too.
“He did not poison it with chemicals, but with ideas,” Sayyid said. “And revenge. Revenge for the part my people played in the Shiite uprising in Iran. We are Shiite Muslims. Saddam is Sunni. So he tries to kill us by taking away our water. When the water is not fresh, it dies.”
“You mean it becomes stagnant?” Robbie asked.
“Yes. Stagnant. This water breeds cholera. We have no cure for this disease.” Sayyid’s voice assumed a distant quality.
“When I see the problem, I take her by tarrada.” Sayyid turned to Robbie. “This is my large canoe, much bigger than my mashuf. It is more than thirty-feet. I have six people paddling while I hold her head in my lap. But it is not enough. By the time I see the doctor, he can do nothing. I am too late.” Sayyid wiped at his eyes as if he had an itch. Robbie looked at Amara who put her hands in her lap and bowed her head.
“Saddam made this. He killed my beloved wife when he stops the water with his dams. With his evilness. If he is not the devil himself then he has made a deal with him. This I know.” Sayyid adjusted his turban and straightened his robe. “My people lived here from the beginning of time. Now they live in refugee camps on the borders in Iran.”
“That’s why we’ve come, uncle,” Amara said.
Fawzia appeared with a tray containing three demitasse cups, sugar, spoons, and an ebriki, a small brass pot with a long handle, used to cook the coffee directly over the stove. Steam wafted from the narrow opening of the pot. Fawzia set the tray down and smiled at Amara and Robbie.
“You are hungry?” She brought her fingers to her lips to indicate eating with one’s hands. “You eat now?”
Amara nodded and smiled. Fawzia squeezed Amara’s hand and left.
“She speaks only a little bit English, my wife,” Sayyid explained to Robbie.
Robbie nodded. “I’m sure we’ll manage.”
to be continued. . .