Thirst, Knowledge and Love

by Ben Okri

Are we running out of water? (Issue III/2022)


1 Thirst

One day a woman had come to see him because she had written to him a few times and he had never replied. They sat on his sofa while she interrogated him.
' Why haven't you written to me?'
  He was silent.
' I came all this way to see you.'
' What is it you want?'
' To be your friend.'
' Do you think it's possible?'
' Why shouldn't it be?’
  He looked at her again.
' It's just you don't say anything.'
He looked at her mutely. 
' Your silence drives one crazy.'
At last he spoke.
' Friendship means everything to me. I can't do it lightly anymore. It's like entrusting someone with your heart.'

  He paused.
' If I ripped out my heart and gave it to you to look after, could you?'
  He made the ripping motion and presented his heart to her. She stared at his hand.
' That's a scary thing to ask anybody.'
' I know.'
' Would you do it for me?’
' With my life, if you were my friend.'
' Do you have many friends?'
' No.'
' I see why.'
He smiled.
' My mother told me a story about a lonely prince. Being a prince made it hard for him to find true friends. He asked a wise man for help. The wise man said, “find out which of your friends, using only their hands, can carry water a long way from the river, without spilling it..." She didn’t finish the story.’
' What did she mean?'
' I am not sure.'
' I'd like to try it.'
' Really? Where?'
' Here. Do you have a bucket?'
' Yes.'
' Fill it up with water and let's go outside. I will be at one end of the canal and you will be half way down. First I will see if I can bring you water with my naked hands. Then you will try.'
' Do I have to?'
' Yes, this is about your requirement for friendship. I want to meet it.'
' But it’s not your requirement. It’s mine. You must have your own.'
' I am not as wise as your people. I will adopt yours.'
   He got up and fetched water in a bucket. They went out of the house and down the canal. 
 They found a spot where she would stand. He went off a good way down the canal, till she waved him to stop. A moment later she was walking towards him in a hurried way. When she got to him there was a small quantity of water left in her cupped hands. 
' What do you want to do with it?'
' Let's pretend I'm dying of thirst, and you've brought this for me.'
She lifted her hands to his face, and he drank. Then it was his turn.  
 When he was a child his mother had taught him how to cup his hands so that water would not escape.
' You never know when only a few drops of water could save someone's life,' she had said.        

 He had now got to where the bucket of water was. He cupped his palms and scooped up water from the bucket. Then he walked towards the woman. The world shimmered like mirages in a desert. The buildings and the cars and the road had gone. There was only the woman, dying of thirst. He didn't hurry. His mother had told him to be calm in those situations. He walked steadily. Not a drop leaked from his hands. Neighbours remarked his trance-like state. Cars went past him. He felt the sun keenly. Sweat ran into his eyes, but he did not blink. Then he was before her. She lowered her face, and drank. The water seemed to have no end. She drank till her thirst was thoroughly quenched. Then he stopped. She saw that there was still water left in his hands. 
' Have you finished?'
' Yes.'
He drank the rest.
' Where did you learn to do that?'
' Do what?'
' Make the water keep on running from your hands?’
' It was your thirst.'
' What about it?'
' It was a great thirst. You made the little that I brought into a lot.'
' I was thirsty. You took your time. I could have died by the time you got to me.'
' I could have rushed and brought you nothing.'
' You have no idea how hot it was. Like the desert.'
' Do you know the desert?'
' Yes,' she said, and looked around.

2 Knowledge 

The hall was packed. People had been speculating about the talk for weeks. Never before had the university invited such a person to address the academic community. The Dean of faculties had hoped that, in these atheistic times, such a person might provoke a useful debate about the state of knowledge in the world.
   When she turned up the dean was surprised that she was younger than she first appeared. She did look worryingly young. What if her talk were a total disaster? He would be made to look a fool and might be stripped of his position.
   But the moment had arrived. He made the most non-committal of introductions, and fled the stage. Previously, she had made only one request. She did not want a lectern. She wanted, on a table, only a bowl of water and a transparent glass. 
   She stepped forth and cast her eyes over the people in the hall. Contempt was openly written on many faces. The mood was thick with doubt and even a discernible  mockery. She smiled.
' Can everyone see me clearly?' she asked.
   Someone gave a snorting laugh. Otherwise a dull sound of assent travelled across the hall. 
' Good, ' she said. ' Then you can't complain afterwards.'
   She held up the bowl of water as if to perform a miracle. Then she poured water from the bowl into the raised glass. She filled the glass. Water spilled from the cup as from a gushing tap. There seemed no end to the water in the bowl. Water ran from the glass, to the table and down to the floor. The water soon covered the whole surface of the floor. Still no one spoke. They watched her first with amusement at her patent stupidity, then with surprise, and finally with alarm. The water rose, creeping higher up the wainscoting. There were several electrical sockets at floor level. With a serene expression on her face, she went on pouring.
   At last an academic, from the philosophy department, could bear it no longer. 
' For God's sake woman,’ he shouted, ‘ can't you see that you are spilling all that water?'
   At that moment the woman stopped. Something cleared in the air.
' What water?' she said. ' What spilling?'
 The floor about her feet was dry. She put the bowl down, and drank the water in the full glass. She stared at the hall crowded with the best brains in the academic world. On their faces were incomprehension and thinly veiled wonder. 
   She bowed and left the stage. A tremendous applause erupted behind her. 
   She went out the door, out of the university, and never returned.
   The dean who invited her became master of the college and two years later was knighted for services to education.

3 Love

When I was a kid I used to talk to the stream in my hometown.
' How are you?' I once asked.
' Not so good.'
' Why not?'
' There was a time when your people used to worship me as a goddess. Back then my water was clean and pure and children loved playing in me and beautiful young girls came to fetch water. The town used to put me in songs, and every year celebrated me. I was a big stream back then.'
' What happened? You're really tiny now.'
' The factories came and began dumping things in me. I grew sluggish and the mermaids didn’t come anymore to play on my shores. The town stopped putting me in their songs. Then they forgot about me altogether.'
' I haven't. You're still my friend.'
' That's why I'm still here. But I'm moving away. I only delayed going because I was waiting for you to grow up.'
' Where are you going?'
' Does it matter? When you've once been a goddess you don't want to be a puddle, which is what I am.'
' But I will miss you.'
' When you think of your childhood in this forgetful town, you will at least always remember me when I was a real stream. I want to leave when that memory is still fresh in one person's mind.'
' I am really sorry to hear it. Tell me where you're going so I can come and visit you.'
' I'm going to be free. If something is there your people take it for granted. They respect things that are not there anymore. They make religions out of them. When your people take something for granted they do terrible things.'
' Like what?'
' They empty their sewers in it. This they call appreciation. It is better for your people if things are no longer here.’

' Is that why you're leaving, because you're not properly honoured? If that's the case I could...'
' Things only remain because they're loved. I can't bear indifference. It’s the cause of all I have suffered, all the toxic waste dumped in me. No one hates me. It's just that they don't care. '
   The stream was silent for a while.
' This is the last time you'll see me. Our fates are linked. When I'm gone you will never return.'
' Why is that?'
' One day your mother and father will pass away. Then what will be left? Just the sense that no one cares about you here. I am the only one that could cradle you again as I did when you were a child. When I disappear this town will die.'

  That was the last time I heard the voice of the stream. I grew up and travelled into the world. The last time I was back, the stream had gone. The town had shrunk.

  I still seek that stream everywhere I go.



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