Andrew Stiggers

 

 

The Purest Water

Unable to hold in his anger, Jared thumps the front passenger door’s armrest. He hates his father for dragging him on yet another nature holiday. He hates his mother too—she’s skiving off this side-trip to the reserve, making an excuse about a headache. But most of all he hates them. He glares out the rear window at the dark-skinned family in the trailing car. Jared bangs the back of his head against his seat. They’re the ones who’d asked to go camping and now want to visit the springs.

His father glances at him from the driver’s side. “Calm down, Jared.”

“But we saw the water last year, Dad.” And he’d found the walk boring then. “I don’t want to go with those Indians.”

Fijian-Indians. And yes, you will. My workmate’s family are new to the country and we’re showing them some sights.”

“Humph.”

“Anyway, all this fresh air will do you good. Get you away from your computer.” His father waits at the lights near the lakeside. “Look at that view, son.”

Jared turns away and presses his face against his window, smudging the glass.

The outside’s all a blur for the remainder of the drive.

When they arrive in the carpark his father switches off the engine but stays in his seat. “You’d better make an effort with them, Jared. Do you hear me? Just imagine if that was us—moving overseas.”

Through the windscreen he observes some older boys cycle in from the road and dump their bikes on the grass. “Fine, Dad.” Jared wishes he was hanging with those kids instead.

He shuffles behind his father to where the other family are outside stretching their legs. Jared can’t stop staring at the mother’s headscarf—she’d also got a few looks from neighbouring campers at the holiday park whilst helping to set up their tent. The head covering reminds Jared of Auntie Tanya when she was having chemo, shortly before she passed away. Her face had been sunken, gaunt.

The father smiles but his son, Farouk, appears bored, staring at the ground with his hands in his pockets. He’s near Jared’s age, so Jared’s parents thought the two of them could be friends. “I’m sure you’ll hit it off with him,” his father had said on the journey down from the city.

Last night Jared had sat on the jetty next to him, not sure what to say. “Fiji’s got a good Sevens team, eh? Do you like rugby?”

“No. Football.” Farouk got up and returned to their tents.

The boy’s wearing a similar shirt to the one he had on yesterday. They’re soccer jerseys, Jared had learnt from Farouk’s father at breakfast. For a Spanish club he’d never heard of.

His father tells his workmate, “Sidiq, you’ve got to be careful with any belongings you leave in the car. There might be thieves about.”

“Thanks, Paul.” The man stores his wife’s handbag in their boot after putting on his rucksack.

There’s quacking behind Jared. A whistle.

 “Sidiq, Farouk, look.” The mother points in excitement to a brace of native ducks parading along the tarmac.

Jared smirks—it’s as if she’s never seen these birds before in her life.

Farouk glances up and frowns at him, while his father gets out his camera.

Once the family are finally ready—the feathered locals have trooped off into the bushes—Jared leads the group out of the carpark. He remembers the bridge over the stream from his last visit and strides towards it, hoping that if he goes at pace, the trip will end faster. Jared overtakes some sightseers and then checks over his shoulder and slows down—there’s no point. The others are dawdling, their eyes drawn to the world around them.

Halfway across the bridge Jared halts and leans over the side, waiting for them to catch up. Clear as glass, the water hasn’t changed. He can see all the mosses and other plants carpeting the bottom of the stream—a fish darts for cover—and at its surface ducks and white geese seem to float on air. The pristine waterway must be a refuge for all sorts of wildlife, he thinks. Upstream, regal black swans make an entrance. Some of the waterfowl, chirping and squeaking, swim up to the other end of the bridge where tourists are feeding them bread.

When the adults reach Jared, they rest their elbows on the balustrade and admire the view. Farouk remains on his own a few steps back. Beyond him, Jared notices the older boys from the carpark, now lurking near the bridge. One of them etches a post with a knife while the other two keep watch. The metal glints in the sunlight, hurting Jared’s eyes.

“Amazing—the water’s clearer than the lagoons back in Fiji,” announces Farouk’s father.

“Well, I would swap places in a heartbeat to be at one of those lagoons. Wouldn’t you too, Jared?” His father laughs and rubs Jared’s head.

Trust his father to embarrass him. He straightens his hair.

Strands of moss stretch out into the current below.

“This is so peaceful.” Farouk’s mother leans over the side while the father takes photos.

Jared notices the older boys advancing along the bridge.

The leading boy veers towards Farouk and bumps into him before marching on. They all snigger, disdain in their darkened eyes as they then file past Jared.

Farouk glares at their backs, then realises Jared is watching him and turns away. He retreats behind his mother who, like the others, is still viewing the waterway, oblivious to what has happened.

Jared’s father raps the balustrade. “Shame that our farmers are ruining the rivers with their runoff.”

“We also have problems in Fiji,” says Farouk’s mother.

“It’s the same everywhere.” His father nods. “But hopefully nothing will touch this water.” Ducks swim towards them, quacking. “Right, Jared, let’s get going.”

Coming to a bush-clad bend a short distance after the bridge, Jared peers round it, expecting to see those boys again—but the trail’s empty.

He sticks close to his father as the group continues following the stream. Over on the far bank there are walkers taking the return path to the carpark. Jared wishes he could leap across to the other side and complete the track loop now.

The water’s different here. Gazing at the submerged plants and stretches of sand and stones, Jared can see various shades of reflected greens and blues. A golden shimmer. It’s a chest brimming with treasure—a vast hoard of emeralds and sapphires, and imperial jade too.

He hears Farouk’s mother say something in another language.

“Yes, Amma,” replies Farouk.

Seeing that the family are heading to a bench on the bank, Jared and his father wait.

Farouk’s father takes off his rucksack and places it on the seat. “We won’t be long, Paul.”

“That’s fine. Take your time.”

The mother rummages inside the bag and retrieves a chocolate bar which she hands over to Farouk, saying something in that foreign tongue again.

Jared fidgets. She should be speaking English in front of them.

Farouk offers Jared a piece.

“No, thanks.”

His father also declines.

While Farouk snacks, Jared clambers down the bank through a gap in the ferns to the water’s edge. The boy, like his parents, must be famished after last night’s barbecue—Jared’s mother had forgotten they can’t have pork, and the family were left with salad-filled buns. Although Jared had pitied them, he still enjoyed his extra sausages, and all that bacon for breakfast too.

It doesn’t take Farouk long to finish off the bar and hand back the wrapper to his mother.

Two rainbow trout are splashing about in the water. They poke their heads above the surface, their bulbous eyes peering out. Farouk joins Jared down the bank, and prods the water with a fallen branch.

The boy’s stolen his idea—Jared had been about to do the same thing.

He watches the trout swim away.

“Farouk, stop that. Come,” calls Farouk’s father.

Ditching the stick, the boy trudges back to the track.

Jared follows, thinking about how these fish will navigate downstream, past the series of bridges to the small estuary—only to be snared by the boaties waiting out on the lake.

As the group sets off again Jared’s father makes a beeline for him. “Why don’t you walk with Farouk for a bit?”

“But, Dad—”

“No buts, Jared. Go on. He’s not going to bite.”

God, he hates his father. Jared drags himself to Farouk at the back of the group, while his father catches up to the others.

Strolling together, the adults briefly chat and glance over their shoulders, smiling at the boys.

Jared averts his eyes, embarrassed again. He can sense that Farouk’s not impressed either—the boy kicks a stone over to the bank.

After progressing further along the track Jared watches the parents enter the redwood grove. They seem so insignificant, the giant trees towering above them.

With Farouk trailing behind him, he sets foot into the wood. All he can hear is the occasional rustle of leaves. Jared misses being at home playing his online game with his mates. They’ve probably levelled up without him. He sighs.

Fed up with the silence, Jared decides he has to say something—anything—to his new walking buddy. “Far—” Turning round, he discovers that Farouk has wandered off and spies the boy’s head on the far side of a mound. Stupid kid. Jared chases after him. “Farouk.”

The boy’s gone.

Now deeper into the grove, Jared can no longer see the path. He scans the gaps between the trees. What’s that? Palms sweating, he feels like he’s being watched. He dismisses the idea—he’s got to venture on.

“Farouk?” He finds the boy squatting beside a fallen tree. It’s the same monstrous trunk Jared remembers encountering on the last trip with his parents. “You need to come back, Farouk.”

“What’s this, Jared?”

“What?” Jared peers down at the forest floor where Farouk is examining something. “It’s a wētā. You better be careful—they give a nasty bite.”

“It looks like an alien.” Leaving the bug alone, Farouk climbs onto the log and steps along its top, his arms out for balance.

In the distance there’s a crack of breaking wood.

Jared faces the direction of the noise. Nothing. “Are you coming, Farouk?” He realises Farouk has noticed something from his higher vantage point. Following the boy’s line of sight, Jared spots those older boys again, coming out of hiding from behind some trees. They’re all holding sticks and one sneers, baring his teeth.

The brawniest lad leaps onto the other end of the log and bears down on Farouk, his face full of hate.

Jared knows their kind. Bullies. Bigger than the rest, infuriated by those different to themselves. He’d witnessed one gang hunting an Asian kid in the empty school gymnasium. Raging and howling like feral hyenas.

He’s amazed that Farouk hasn’t fled, and though the boy is dwarfed by the trees he seems to stand taller than the bully, his arms tense and eyes bulging, as if about to perform a haka.

The lad stops short of Farouk, appearing puzzled that the boy hasn’t flinched.

Kia kaha.

Jared wants to be up there on that log to support Farouk but he’s rooted to the spot. Like back in that gymnasium where he’d cowered in terror beneath the bleachers, hearing the Asian kid’s cries for help as they beat him. Jared doing nothing.

This isn’t right.

He takes a deep breath and finds it difficult to get the words out. “Please, Farouk, we should go.”

The boy lowers himself off the log, his eyes still fixed on the bully.

“Yeah, go on—piss off, nigger.” Smirking, the lad swings his stick wildly in the air.

Another boy chips in. “And take your fag lover with you.”

“Jared… Farouk…” It’s Jared’s father calling out in the distance.

The lad signals to the others to leave before he jumps off the log, and they slink back into the shadows between the trees.

Jared checks on Farouk once the bullies have gone. “Are you all right?”

The boy brushes dirt off his hands and catches his breath. “Yes.”

Noticing that Farouk is shaking, Jared thinks about that gym again.

“There you both are.” His father has tracked them down. “We’ve been waiting for you.”

“Sorry, sir—it’s my fault.”

“It’s my fault too, Dad.”

Farouk glances at Jared.

“Not to worry.” About to set off, his father pauses. “Oh, and Farouk, you’ve got to start calling me Paul, eh?”

Jared keeps an eye between the trees as they leave, fearing more trouble.

Returning to the track, his father leads them to where Farouk’s parents are seated at another bench beside the stream. “I’ve found them.”

Farouk rushes up to his mother and holds onto her arm.

She seems surprised to receive his attention. “Is everything all right, son?”

“Yes, Amma.”

Staring at Farouk and his mother, Jared wonders if anything would’ve happened back in the grove if it was just him, a local-looking boy. Probably not.

His father squats on the edge of the bank and collects some water in his drink bottle. “So, who’s thirsty?”

“Dad, are you sure it’s okay to drink?” Jared doesn’t remember doing this on the last visit.

“Jared, trust me—this is the freshest water you’ll ever taste.” His father addresses the others. “This has come directly from the springs which are very close by.” He takes a sip. “Anyone else?”

“I’ll have some.” Farouk’s father takes the bottle. “Bula… That’s good.”

His wife and Farouk try some too.

When it’s Jared’s turn, Farouk gives him a pretend toast. “Bula, Jared.”

“Bula.” The water’s cool. Sweet. Jared imagines it could quench the most terrible thirst. “I’ll get some more.”

While he reaches down to refill the bottle he examines the stream more closely. There’s an abundance of fine leaves scattered on top of the clusters of liverworts. It’s like another world, full of delicate lawns. Elsewhere feathery moss clings to rocks with root-like tendrils.

Across the waterway he sees some tourists hovering near a tributary on the return path. Jared thinks of the bridge further up, close to one of the smaller springs. He and his parents had stood watching clouds of sand billowing at the bottom of the creek as water seeped up from beneath the ground. The Dancing Sands, they’re called.

After the bottle’s handed round again his father puts it away. “Come on, folks. Not far to go now.”

The group tours through more woods before finally reaching the headspring. Jared follows Farouk and the others onto a raised viewing platform, and wait for another group to leave before lining up along the railing. Although he didn’t want to admit it to his father, he’d been looking forward to this part of the walk.

Down below, Jared can see the source of the water—a large, gaping hole at the bottom of the stream. Ripples are emanating in all directions from the spring. In constant motion.

“It takes a lifetime for it to travel underground to this place,” his father explains.

Farouk and his parents attend to his words.

Jared remembers him stating the same fact on their last visit. Initially impressed by his father’s knowledge, Jared had laughed when his mother pointed to the adjacent information board he must’ve seen. Now his father’s becoming more animated as he describes the spring, gesturing with his arms. He knows his father means well in cajoling Jared on these trips. In his mind he can still picture that hidden universe they’d discovered when they visited the glow worm cave—a galaxy of twitching blue stars.

“Right, let’s go in for a closer look.” His father leads them on, Jared thinking he would make a good tour guide.

They take the bush path down to the other side of the springhead and descend the steps to the lower platform that juts out over the water’s edge. The other group have long gone.

Jared leans over the railing beside Farouk and peers into the dark depths of the volcanic crevice. He can feel the water surging out of the ground. The spring must be ancient, formed an age before the first humans came along.

He studies the others—they’re all silent, even his father is regarding the sight in quiet fascination. Thinking of what Farouk’s mother had said earlier on, Jared can see how serene the place is. The ferns and native trees. The rocks. The stream. It’s almost spiritual. A place of prayer and contemplation where you can be yourself. The best of places.

My God! He jumps in fright as an almighty splash breaks the surface of the water directly in front of them. Farouk looks equally shocked.

Jared spots the bullies on the higher viewing platform. They must’ve chucked a rock down. Savages.

Feeling exposed, vulnerable, he steps back, fearing they’ll throw another one.

“Fuck off back to India.” The cowards run off into the woods, shouting and swearing.

Of all places in the world, how could this happen here? Yet Farouk’s father shakes his head as if he’s seen this countless times before.

“I’m so sorry about that.” Jared’s father checks on them.

“It’s not your fault, Paul,” his workmate says.

“Sidiq, I brought you guys here.”

Farouk’s mother reminds him. “They’re just kids, Paul. They don’t know what they’re doing.”

Jared sees that Farouk has been splashed in his face, and now appears to have tears running down his cheeks. “Are you okay, Farouk?”

The boy shrugs it off. “It’s only water.”

Yes, it could’ve been much worse.

Scanning the streambed, Jared spots the rock the kids must’ve thrown. It’s landed close to the crevice, but not even the largest boulders could prevent this spring from finding a way out of the earth.

The water’s as pure as it can get. Purer than an oasis in the driest desert, purer than the coldest glacial lake. Colourless and life-giving for all.

In the sunlit water he can see their reflections—five silhouetted faces looking the same, gazing up at him.

They are us.

“Come on, Farouk. I’ll show you another spring where the sand dances.”

“Dances?”

“Yeah, it’s pretty cool.” He turns to his father. “Okay if we meet you at the next bridge?”

“See you there, son.”

Jared and Farouk run ahead of their parents back up the steps.

 


Andrew Stiggers is a short fiction writer from New Zealand. His work has appeared in Meniscus, STORGY and Gravel among others, and his awards include being the winner of the 2017 Global Ebook Awards (Short Stories category) and the winner of the Trisha Ashley Award 2017 for best humorous story.


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