Beneath the fabric of a thatched roof, she was weighing her thirteen, fourteen, fifteen jugs of water. The ribbons of the liquid danced from rim to rim, and she jostled and turned to correct them. Until they were silent, until they were still.
She was canvassed in black, shrouded in mystery, more graceful than Salome. Her arms extended far beyond her reach, as her fingers knelt in the crevices of the canisters. Each jug was unique, imprinted with figures that kept their meaning from most. Who could read them? There were riverways, and mountains; there were forests with sensual trees and armies of men. Some were alive in themselves, while others were monuments to moments interred.
Though ignorant, she walked gently. Her figure curved with the sway of gravity’s pull and the sounds of the creatures wandering the earth. She quieted her pace, she stopped altogether to cage her delight. Water to women, and on to the children and men! Then she continued apace, lightly, intent on returning home.
At the nape of the city there dwelt an old man, and he greeted the visitors who passed by the gates. With his strawed, wiry hair, he hobbled toward caravans mounded with trade. There were nomads with spices, there were Christians with gold, there were hunters with animals larger than men. And some were concealed in glistening armor; others were blissfully naked, unashamed of themselves. Whatever their nature, the old man would offer his hand. “To the city where men live in peace, I welcome you!” This he would say, both day and night, lightless or bright, starving or fed. And no one offered him food; no one offered him home. But he said, nonetheless pleased, “This is the city where men live in peace!”
This day was quiet on the eve of winter. The gates were flung open, but processions did not come. There were no traders, no barters, no missionaries, no explorers lost by the way. Only a child of a woman, carrying her water in mystical jugs to the city’s own center. As she passed by the entrance, she smiled at the man with the hobble. She lowered one jug and pressed it against his blackening hands. “For you,” she said simply. And he thanked her with grins and a lick of his lips.
The center of the city held children at play; there were fountains that ran from the day to the night, and sculptures of gods and heroes of war; but the center of the great core of that city was left to a wide, shimmering bowl. It was circled around with candles to light it at night, while the houses stood off at a distance. It was here that the solstice convened; it was here, at the births and the deaths of its people, that citizens sang. And when children wept, and parents mourned; when grandfathers wailed in impending death, the citizens of the city of peace came to the shimmering font. There was not goodness or evil conducted among them that did not observe the great host of people ringing the water.
And so it was given to the charge of one daughter within the city, to collect the water that would fill the bowl. And it was said, that if the bowl ever were dry, then the city would cease to exist. For water created it, and water conducts it. If water is absent, it dies.
Therefore the greatest artisans gathered on the steps of the city to build the vessels that would carry the life-source to the soul of the people. They would symbolize greatness, and possibility. They would remember nature, and they would commemorate the dead who lived to bring life to others. And on these jugs, numbered fifteen, would spell the history of this city’s people, from birth until the present day.
So it was that the water-carrier would bring water from the well, the far-flung well in the arid lands. And when the water in the font at the center of the city was restored, then there would be a celebration. There would be dancing, and laughing, and playing. They would eat until full; they would drink until happy. For the water restored meant life restored. And life is the utmost attainment of all.
But it happened one day, to the daughter balancing jugs on her thigh, on her breast, on her head. She came to the jagged old well in the middle of winter. There was no one near; the gates of the city had closed. Travelers dared not wander away in the cold. But there, she lowered her jugs, and found no water lapping the depths of the well. In panic, she threw the vessels behind her, shattering them against a stone. She lifted a pebble that rested beside her and dropped it to the bottom water source. It rang clear; it was crisp; it was hollow. It was empty.
The devastation of life crept upon her. How could she return to the city, jugs empty, water depleted? The bowl of the city must be filled! How can life be without water? But even if the water had returned, her jugs were scattered in pieces on the ground. There was no way to carry it home. The well was dried up; the symbols of life to this city were ruined; and a child, not yet a woman, wept by the brittle old stone of the earth.
As night fell, she lifted herself. She knew she must tell the others; they must know. The thousands of years built from the grounds of this place, the buildings, the art, the museums, the culture, the trade! All of it must be saved. And so she ran, falling as she did, over mounds of dirt and stone. Until she arrived at the city gates, worn and bruised from the journey.
The old man looked at her from beneath his twined hair. He did not move. He did not up to greet her, for the woman had no water to give him. And so he slept, as he did, saying “This is the city of ruin.”
At the gates, the young woman beat her fists. She wept and she cried bitterly until the shaking of reeds and the buckle of beams alerted the citizens inside. There were three that unlatched the door, three more that rushed to her side. They draped their arms all around her, and carried her weary young body to the center of her city.
As they traveled the winding roads, horns blasted from rooftops above them. Murmurs became racket and racket became shouting. Until, at the last, they arrived at the font. And there stood the city in sum: all people assembled to hear news of the daughter who carries the water to the life of the city, the shimmering bowl.
Her companions set her down and silence pervaded the crooks and crannies of each house, each nestled dominion. The lights on the candles enrobing the bowl flickered dimly, hesitantly. What would become of the city this night? What would become of its people?
Slowly, she rose and shivered with angst and the cold. She glared at the people, their faces stark mad with disaster. And quiet, quiet as stone.
“I have been to the well,” she began, hushed in a whimper, and wept. “I have been to the well for the water. I have been everyday since I had the honor to go. But the well was empty. It was dry. And I have not heard it hollow once in my life. In my panic and anger, I shattered the jugs of the city. I do not know where the water has gone. But there is no more; neither do we have anything in which to carry it.” And exhausted, she collapsed to the ground.
The people turned and stared at each other. Their faces were bleak, white, ghoulish things that shadowed each other in the light of the candles. The quiet prevailed, until—
One of the citizens shouted out mad, “Fend for yourselves! Take the water you need!” At this he dove for the font, lapping up waves of the undisturbed water. Others soon followed, climbing inside the bowl, bathing themselves, opening their clothes to house pockets of water. They climbed over each other, knocking their friends and family to the ground. The grandfathers writhed in the dirt, wailing in sickness and trampled. The mothers horded their children while rushing for tins and baskets and wicker to carry the water back home. And the men quickly fought, punching and kicking, biting at arms, and ripping off flesh with their teeth.
Shouts were heard louder than hornblows, louder than laughter that once paraded through streets: “Away! Get away! It is mine!”
Such panic ensued, and candles were knocked to the side, their flames lighting the fabric of clothing, citizens alight in the pitch black of night. Oh, there were young ones and mothers burned to their grave by the fault of the flame! There were husbands beaten to death. There were elderly souls trampled, forgotten, their brittle bones shattered in hundreds of fragments on stone.
And there, more water was thrown from the font than was saved for the living. It moistened the ground and washed the proud faces, painted with black and blue and red. At the crux of the city, the maelstrom continued, until citizens were dying, were dead—one of them, two of them, three of them, all. Bloody and wet, candles extinguished, ashes carried to wind. Bloody and beaten, dead all the citizens of the city of peace.
* * *
Years later, after the dirt had mired the great halls of the city, and culture had failed, and history was lost, there came a caravan upon the well. They saw it and remembered fondly: “Do you remember when we were lost and crying of thirst?” one of them asked. “So I do,” the others laughed, “and this well saved us!” It was true. A caravan of goods, and wealth, and religion, stopped at the well for drinking. And there were so many in their number that the well was dried up. And so they continued on their journey, past the city of the simmering bowl. It was only years after when they came upon it again.
And this time, they recognized shards in the dirt. And the shards they pieced together, and recognized paintings and etchings. “What is this and where did it come from?” they queried each other. So they followed the fragments and intuition, until they came upon the tired old gates of the city of peace. As they neared it, an old man approached them and said, “Welcome travelers, to the city of ruin.” As he said this, he did not offer his hand; and they did not offer him food.
When they had entered the city, bearing down the great gates, they entered the ceremonious square. And still to that day, lay the corpses of citizens, burned alive for their water, beaten for drink. The bowl still stood shimmering, still commanded the air. All eyes bent toward it. And for some reason unknown—be it greatness, be it peace, be it life undiscovered and death far too quick, they knelt at the hilt of the font.
In the silence, there stirred a maddening hornblow from rooftops above.