Fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from our favorite emerging writers
In the future, some will likely say it need not have happened. Others will say it was inevitable. History may refer to it as the War for Water, but that will be a misnomer. The true causes of the war had simmered for centuries, the pressure steadily building until it exploded like a volcanic eruption. Water merely brought the endless conflict between The Collaborators and the Awethu to a head. I know these things are true, for I was an eyewitness. - Bookman
Except for the chirp of crickets and the occasional splash from a leaping fish, all was quiet. The pine and deciduous trees surrounding the reservoir cast tall fractured shadows on the land and along the water’s edge. Crouching behind a pair of fallen trees with fan-shaped mushroom conks growing out of crevasses in their gray trunks, I stared at the water. I couldn’t recall when I last bathed, but for a moment, I imagined feeling its refreshing coolness on my skin.
The life I now lead is unlike anything I could have imagined. By training, I am a historian. Before the war, reading, researching, and writing filled my days. Hence they call me, Bookman. But now, with matted hair hanging below my brown shoulders in thick black coils, a shaggy beard covering my face, and crusty patches of dried blood on my sweat-stained, mud-caked denim shirt and pants, I am a freedom fighter among the Awethu for justice and equality.
The Collaborators say we are criminals, lawbreakers. They whip up fear of us by saying we will rape and murder their women and children. But such things are lies, have never been true, and are products of their acute paranoia, self-induced hysteria, wild imaginings, and completely baseless fears. Many Awethu who have challenged injustice; Medgar, Viola, Martin, Addie Mae, Cynthia, Carole, Carol Denise, James, Andrew, Michael, and countless others have been killed. Breonna, Ali, Ahmaud, Dominique, Trayvon, Eric, Natasha, Michael, Atatiana, and George are among the latest of the recently martyred.
For many years, scientists had warned that the amount of potable water on the planet was declining. Those living on some of the continents heeded the warnings and took serious steps to address climate change, pollution, and the other factors creating the problem. On others, half-hearted measures were taken. But directly below Canada, on the North American continent, the T.W.S., the latest incarnation of a cult-like sub-group that has always existed within The Collaborators and traffics in conspiracy theories, had disparaged and attacked scientists and environmental advocates for years. They convinced corporations there was no quick profit to be made addressing the water issue, so it was ignored.
When the water shortage began, The Collaborators, with the T.W.S. ensconced throughout the political system, claimed ownership of every significant public source of water. Overnight, armed guards cordoned off dams, reservoirs, town wells, water treatment facilities, etc... leaving only rivers, lakes, ponds, streams, and other water sources of questionable health safety unclaimed.
The Collaborators said they intended to protect and safeguard the water, but many of the Awethu did not trust them because of their history of deceit. A handful of The Collaborators objected to the surreptitious way the water had been seized, but as always, the overwhelming majority of them signaled their tacit approval through silence and inaction.
As time passed, less and less potable water remained in the Awethu communities. Requests to The Collaborators for water were denied. Following that, the Awethu offered to buy some former public water sources but were told they weren’t for sale. Proposals to share or gain access to water under The Collaborators’ control got rebuffed and legal court appeals fell on deaf ears.
With the situation growing dire, the Awethu employed rain barrels, pots, pans, anything that could collect what fell from the heavens, but there was never enough water. While The Collaborators cooked, washed, bathed, kept their swimming pools filled, lawns watered, and automobiles sparkling clean, famine and death befell the Awethu.
Raising my night vision binoculars, I trained them on the hastily built fortifications encircling the reservoir. The road in and out of it passed through twelve-foot high iron gates manned by armed guards. Two separate perimeters had also been established. The outermost consisted of razor-sharp concertina wire strung on steel pickets driven into the ground. Interspersed throughout the wire, watchtowers with decks sat atop skeletal scaffolding that looked as if it’d been slapped together with random pieces of wood. In the open area between the perimeters, what we referred to as the kill zone, there was a red brick pillbox shaped building. This housed the main valves and pumps controlling the flow of water from the reservoir and the generators that powered the lights surrounding it. Construction of the inner perimeter was still in process. Once completed, it would be a ten-foot-high concrete wall topped with barbed wire.
Tapping my shoulder, Han Jin pointed toward a section of the deck of the nearest watchtower. Though Han and I belonged to different ethnic groups, we were both members of the Awethu, a coalition of people seeking equality and justice for all. Establishing the Awethu coalition had not been a simple task. For hundreds of years, The Collaborators had incited rivalries and distrust between the various ethnic groups.
It was Thomas who originally suggested creating an alliance with the other groups. He’d stopped by my office at the University shortly after The Collaborators seized the water.
“This is genocide,” he said. “Our people are dying. We must fight them.”
Shaking my head I said, “We have been fighting them.”
“How?” he asked, his eyes narrowing. “Talking? Voting? Protesting? Such things are all bullshit, Bookman. We’ve talked for hundreds of years and it has accomplished nothing. When did treating other human beings as you’d like to be treated become complicated? We cannot continue to allow them to use our humanity and decency against us. Voting? They tell us to vote, then do everything in their power to prevent us from doing so. And failing that, they manipulate the entire political system to sustain their power and control. And protesting?” He laughed. “They say they support peaceful protests and only object if it degenerates into violence. But they always find fault with either when, where, or how we protest. Despite being the offending party, they feel it’s their right to dictate how we express our legitimate grievance? This “Mother May I” game they play with us creates the frustration that leads to the violence.”
Knowing the truth of what he was stating, I raised my hands in surrender and asked what he proposed we do.
“Bookman,” he said. “The answer lies in the books you love so well. Be it Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, the authors of the tales of Harry Potter, or even Star Wars, all arrive at the same conclusion. Wickedness and evil can only be defeated through warfare.”
“But those are stories,” I responded. “Fantasies. Real warfare involves actual life and death.”
“Isn’t death at the hands of The Collaborators something we’ve always had to worry about? One’s ethnicity at birth, like one’s social status, is pure accident. But how one conducts oneself in life is a choice. You know their worldwide history. It is they who have destroyed people’s lives or killed them through their purges, pogroms, inquisitions, crusades, forced relocations, fascism, Nazism, etc… And all this has been done without justification, shame, or remorse while claiming they are the ones victimized and persecuted. Even now they relentlessly seek to impose their professed moral values regarding the “sanctity of life” on others while never exhibiting profound outrage over the sexual assaults on innocent children by their clergymen or the murders of unarmed Awethu.”
The debate over what our group should do took place over many days. Some argued we should propose that our area below Canada be divided into two or three separate and independent regions, each containing its own groups and governments. But Thomas remained steadfast.
"Establishing separate regions could be a solution if The Collaborators’ fundamental goal were not to dominate and subjugate all other groups,” responded Thomas. “They value ownership of property above all else. Do you truly believe they will agree to a peaceful separation when they have never been willing to peacefully coexist alongside others?”
He shook his head. “If we don’t fight them now, then when? For centuries we’ve had to listen to The Collaborators’ lies and put up with their cheating and terrorism. During that time we have tried reason. We have sought to prove we are worthy of being treated as equals. And still... you all continue to hope they will change, but I say enough. The safe water isn’t theirs alone, yet as always, they feel entitled to do and take whatever they want.”
At times the debate grew heated but throughout it, Thomas remained adamant that civil war was the only solution and that if all the Awethu joined and fought as one, we would win.
“And if we win?” I asked.
“When we win, we will share the water with everyone and build a just society in which all are treated equally. We will not seek revenge on The Collaborators for all they have done to us because we are not like them,” said Thomas. “That is what disturbs them the most. Just by continuing to live and breathe, we like a conscience, representing the truth about themselves they desperately seek to escape and deny.”
Having concluded our only option was war, we approached the other groups The Collaborators had also refused to share the water with and we all agreed to form an alliance. Thomas, who’d begun wearing all black; turtle neck, pants, and beret, was appointed our Minister of Defense and plotted our strategy.
As the war began, many of the Awethu lacked armaments and fought using only sticks and stones, knowing superior weaponry doesn’t necessarily win wars. Soon thereafter, we began raiding armories and learned to create Molotov cocktails and IEDs. Finally, we resorted to robbing banks and Federal Reserve buildings. With that money and donations from sympathizers, we bought weapons from arms dealers and foreign countries. Some, myself among them, objected to the robberies, but Thomas reminded us our very survival was at stake. He argued there was no middle ground or anything such as an innocent bystander in a war. Allegiances had to be declared, and then one had to fight until there was a victor.
Responding to Han’s tap on my shoulder, I focused my binoculars on the section of the deck he indicated and saw they had equipped it with one of the new model searchlights. With its unlit face hanging down, it looked benign. But the moment we breached any point along the fortifying perimeter it would spring to life, spotlighting us in an intense eye-blinding glare.
Han shook his head. Not good, he signed to me in the language our indigenous brothers and sisters had taught the Awethu.
Too late to change the plan, I signed back.
Our reconnaissance team’s report hadn’t mentioned the new searchlights. Our recent attack on a similarly outfitted site had been a bloodbath. Many of the Awethu blamed Thomas, who’d turned traitor. But the powerful new searchlights had played a significant role in the large number of Awethu killed, including Han’s wife and brother-in-law. During the battle, he and Hussein had tried to recover their bodies but failed. Days later, when they returned to the battlefield, they found their bodies soaked in urine, eyes gouged out, ears hacked off, tongues cut out, and severed sex organs stuffed in their mouths. Others killed had had their bodies burned or hung from trees and used for target practice. We knew the T.W.S. had committed the acts because they often proudly post videos and photos of themselves doing such things online.
Lowering my binoculars, I looked to my left. Azumi and her wife, Josie Running Bear were kneeling there side by side. Only the dark outlines of Azumi’s bow and quiver of arrows made her recognizable in the night. She had command of the forces protecting our rear position against enemy reinforcements once we attacked.
As if sensing my eyes upon her, Azumi turned toward me.
Six towers with searchlights, she signed.
At least 12 tower guards, I responded.
Most likely 40 to 60 guards per shift.
I nodded. At least we outnumbered them. Josie flashed a smile, then resumed scanning the forest for anything that might hamper a retreat. I’d once asked Azumi why she joined the fight. She’d caressed the smooth hairless head of her 6-year-old son, Kaseem, and kissed it.
Noticing sudden movement near the base of the closest watchtower, I raised my binoculars and focused in. As the guards on patrol passed beneath the klieg lights mounted on the tower, I could clearly see their black shirts, storm trooper boots, and red and white striped caps. Each carried a bulky military-style assault weapon.
I could feel the tension radiating off Han. On his back, in crisscrossed scabbards, were his wife’s and brother-in-law’s swords. I instinctively checked for my machete and confirmed it was in the sheath attached to my belt. Many of our weapons were still far less powerful and deadly than what the guards had.
Han touched my shoulder.
Do you think Thomas told them about tonight’s attack?
I don’t think so, I responded, hoping I was right.
Thomas. What was there to say? Once a friend, now a traitor, a Judas. What had changed? What happened to him? No one knew or could say, but the proof that he was now working with The Collaborators to destroy his own people was indisputable.
Wrapping my binoculars’ strap around their centerpiece, I placed them in their case. What was done was done. It was time to focus. Winning the battle for control of the reservoir’s water depended on my unit cutting the power to the generators. The signal to attack was given, and we charged shouting Hineni and Amandla Awethu, our unified voices destroying the stillness of the night.
J L Higgs' short stories typically focus on life from the perspective of a black American. He has had over 50 publications and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Magazines publishing his work include Contrary Magazine, The Writing Disorder, Dime Show Review, Remington Review, The River, and Fiction on the Web. He resides outside of Boston.