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Mar 1, 2011

“It is a sin to waste water,” warns my mom.

She might as well save her breath. After carrying water in pails and plastic bins from the first to the fourth floor of the building where we live, I know better than to waste a drop of it.

Moms love to warn though, so there she goes again: “We have so little left. Use it sparingly. Make it last until evening.”

In the evening my sister and I will start our summer ritual-water carrying-like the rest of our neighbors who don’t live on the first floor. The town’s water reserve level drops so low in the summer that the water pushes itself up the pipes to the first floor, but no further. On the first floor the water flows from the taps while in the higher floors it carries only growling sounds, like a monster in a bad mood.

So we use it sparingly, only when strictly necessary.

In winter the water runs through the taps of the whole building, not discriminating on the terms of the floors, three times a day for an hour and a half. Every household is busy filling every useable container in their possession during that time.

In the summer our survival grimly depends on the mercy of our first floor neighbors. Twelve families, three for each floor, carry their water up four flights of stairs, utilizing pails, bins, bottles, even cauldrons for this vital cause. Children are the most diligent carriers.

The clock on the wall reminds me that I need to get ready for the water’s evening course. The water won’t come for fifteen more minutes, but I must get in line at my first floor neighbor’s door to be ready.

I grab a pail and two bottles in a plastic bag. I run down the worn smooth stairs.

Soon, other neighbors join the march.

I am third in line.

The first is our next door neighbor, Auntie Jazja. She handles the ordeal quite normally. “I have seen worse,” tell her eyes.

Lina comes second. She lives in the fifth floor, above us. Three years older than me, but not much stronger, she holds an aluminum pail with a blackened bottom. Who knows how many times it has been used to heat water on the stove?

Behind me, fourth in line, is my best friend, Dita. She is restlessly switching hands with her glass bottles clinking noisily. She will break them sooner than she fills them with water. The line grows longer each minute.

Everybody talks with those nearby. Lina and Dita are chatterboxes. I am caught in the crossfire of their words.

I worry that our buzz will annoy our gracious first floor neighbor and she will shoo us away.

When the water starts gushing in we fall silent, listening in reverie. It is proper to wait ten to fifteen minutes for the household to fill their share of water, before the first in line is urged to knock.

I am glad Auntie Jazja is to do that today. A senior lady is always hard to turn down.

Soon enough she goes inside, greeting and blessing the benevolence of the neighbor who seems unpleased opening the door to a bunch of thirsty people. As we hear the water fill Aunties Jazja’s glass bottle, we let out a breath of relief.

Meanwhile the chatting resumes. We talk of anything but water.

Lina runs inside with her pail when Auntie Jazja calls her name, letting her know that she is almost done.

Auntie Jazja comes out carrying four one-liter glass bottles, two in each hand. A thin layer of condensation has formed on them. I think that is the picture of perfection. Those drops forming and dripping on the transparent glass refresh my soul.

Lina, shouts my name. It’s my turn. My heart beats in panic for fear that the moment I place my bottle under the tap, the water will stop flowing. Instead, I will hear that horrible whistle which I dread so much.

I enter, greet the lady of the house and head toward the bathroom. Lina is filling her pail, keeping a short hose in it. The water is forming turbulence, increasing in level, making me feel dizzy a bit with impatience.

When she withdraws her pail, I very quickly put my own under the hose, not wasting a drop of water or a second of time. We have to race with time as well, you see. There are people in line waiting.

I fill my container and call my best friend who appears in a second by my side.

I thank my neighbor, although I will return for more water in a few minutes. She knows that a pail and a few bottles of water are not enough for a family of six. I will make two more rounds if the time permits.

As I go up the stairs, I see a trail of water drops. Lina’s pail must be leaking. How silly! By the time she reaches home, half of the water will be gone. I look behind me to see if my pail is leaking, too. I am glad it is not.

At the second floor I feel my arm tighten. Warm numbness creeps up to my shoulders. The pail is heavy; my limbs stretch while my back complains. I put down my burden and I notice a fine red line forming in my palm by the handle of the pail.

I feel hot, and sweat is roller coasting down the bones of my spine. I will drink half a bottle of water to quench my thirst.

I take a deep breath, grab the pail and the bottle and step up the stairs. A frightful thought invades my mind. I had heard from Lina that carrying heavy weight was extremely harmful to young girls. It could badly damage the back, and also be disabling in childbearing. Although nine times out of ten I don’t believe what Lina tells me, this time I worry. Could it be true? My breathing becomes heavier and my muscles tenser. Tears swell around my eyes. I decide not to worry. Why have children anyway? To send them downstairs to carry water until they break their backs?

As I approach the third floor, I come across my little sister hurrying down the steps with one-liter plastic bottles under each arm. She smiles. I remember once when I was her age, I fell on the last steps of the fourth floor. I hurt my knee and my bottles rolled down, mercilessly spilling the water. I couldn’t stop crying, pretending that it was my knee that made me cry so much when it was the waste of water that broke my heart.

I leave the pail and the bottles in front of my door and as I catch my breath, I listen to Lina’s mother scold her daughter for carelessly spilling half of the pail on the stairs. It’s not her fault. The pail is leaking. But I would rather not interfere.

I ring the bell. Mom appears with a worried look. A shade of pity lingers on her face as she takes the full containers inside, and with an air of apology hands me the empty ones. “My poor girl” her eyes lament. I have noticed that the more I go up and down to make Mom happier with the abundance of water she could use, the sadder she gets. That’s when I feel most miserable.

As she closes the door, I overhear her curse the incompetent government, blaming the infrastructure for our misery. I know the government blames the lack of rain. When the rain vindicates itself in fall showers the government will blame it again, this time for the flood. You see how hopeless it is?

I go down the stairs, this time with two plastic pails. I feel so light that I wish I would never reach the first floor, but I do. Lina is again in front of me. The chatting continues as intensely as the flow of water.

Lina produces a photo from her dress pocket. A young man poses in front of greenest garden I have ever seen. The blue of the sky and the whiteness of his teeth contrast attractively, but I can’t take my eyes off the vast lawn behind him.

“This is my cousin, Alban,” Lina says. “You remember? He immigrated to France four years ago. He is doing quite well. He works in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris,” she says proudly, as if her cousin had become the mayor of the city.

I am busy sorting out something confusing though. Isn’t Luxembourg a country in Europe? Then what business do Luxembourg Gardens have in Paris, the capital of France? I doubt Lina has any idea where France or Luxembourg is, so I keep my peace.

“Do you know they water the grass in this humongous garden with sprinklers that turn on automatically?” she asks.

And before I express my admiration, she goes on about her cousin’s high salary, the car he drives, his clothes and the gifts he sent to them last year.

“I envy him, you know,” she concludes. Her eyes are daydreaming.

“I envy the grass,” I think to myself, but I don’t say it aloud. I would break into tears if I pronounced how worthless I felt, and then I would have the whole line asking what was wrong. What is it like to lie under the sun and be sprinkled with thousands of silvery droplets that replenish every cell of your being? What makes the grass of Luxembourg luckier than me? A surge of envy fills my heart.

Lina counts with delight all the things her cousin has, unaware that she is counting all the things we lack as well. She gets on my nerves. I am saved only when her name is called. She goes in, leaving me with pails full of despair.

I did five rounds of water carrying today. Some neighbors had gone out of town leaving the line, ever so graciously, to us. After dinner I fell asleep listening to the news anchor woman explaining that this year’s drought was the worst ever.

With her drought-warning words echoing in my head, I dived into the world of sleep, and I dreamed. I saw my town was flooded. Angry rivers of water carried furniture, cars, and trees floating in the streets. Among them I saw a body floating, undisturbed. Then I recognized that it was my body. My eyes were closed peacefully. I looked like I was sleeping. In dreams you can do anything, even sleep on a flood’s current. A radiant smile of intact elation lingered on my face. I remember thinking out loud, “I don’t know whether I am dead or not. Yet, no doubt I am happy. So happy that I don’t envy the grass of Luxembourg anymore.”

Mirkena Ozer is pursuing MA in women studies at the University of Georgia, Atlanta.