The water in the crumbling wells is sweet, and in the time of our mothers’ mothers, women of incomparable grace fetched that water in the dawn light, balancing the ewers on their slender shoulders. But the world changes, and as time went on, water was piped to the village, after which the two-mile hike to the wells rather went out of fashion, with only a few of the older women clinging to the belief that well water tastes better than that from a pump in an a tap house at the centre of the village.
Nobody thought too much about the wells until one Sulieman, son of Sulieman, a handsome smooth-skinned, well-to-do young man of little conscience but some local importance, bought the field next to the wells from old Ibrahim. This young man had some entrepreneurial ambitions, and declared the wells his property too. He informed the village that from now on water would cost one Lek per ewer, and that he was going to build a bottling plant and sell crumbling wells water in the city. Even this would have bothered nobody much, had not one of the old women who still regularly collected the cold sweet water been the mother of the village headman.
To say she was furious was to understate the case enormously, and she berated her son as a coward for allowing such a thing to happen. He shrugged and did nothing, as men will. His mother carried on going to the wells every morning, until the day a crowd of hired bravos blocked her way and beat her with bamboo staves until her face was running with blood. For the first time in sixty years, Fatima returned to the village without her water. The whole village was in immediate uproar that such a venerable lady should be so mistreated. They forgot how spiteful Fatima could be in their anger at her bleeding face and limbs. She allowed herself to be fussed over and fed the villagers’ indignation with a show of uncomplaining bravery. It wasn’t until after dark that she gathered certain things together and began to work her malice.
The elders sent for Sulieman. He appeared in front of them with a somewhat truculent expression on his smooth, round face. To his surprise, no mention was made of Fatima’s injuries, instead he was told that as the owner of the wells he was responsible for repairing their crumbling brickwork. Until such time as the repair work was carried out to the satisfaction of the whole village no charge for water could be made. The young entrepreneur bridled, but the elders stood firm. They would fetch in a law writer from the city to enforce their ruling if they were ignored. Sulieman knew himself outmanoeuvred, but determined that he would not be beaten.
That night Fatima, and a lush-bodied young girl Sulieman had used and discarded, made their way to the place of the wells. They were there for some time.
Sulieman called in a family of well diggers from a neighbouring village. They looked at the wells and promptly declined the job. Three more groups declined the contract, before a family from many days’ walk away accepted the job unseen. They arrived at the wells and were obviously shocked by what they saw. They sat together on the dusty ground and pondered. In the end, they packed up their tools and left. Sulieman stood in the middle of the road and tried to stop them leaving.
‘You cannot go. You agreed.’
‘You didn’t tell us about the curse.’ Then the oldest of the well builders shut his mouth firmly and led the way back through the forest to his own village.
While all this was happening, many, many people decided they now wanted to drink well water and a steady stream of containers was filled every day. It started in the pearlescent light of dawn with the old women and their pottery ewers, and carried on all day as the more modern ladies fetched water in plastic containers balanced precariously on the seats of foul-smelling mopeds. Sulieman watched helplessly as his dreamed of profits slipped through his smooth, oiled fingers.
Greatly discomposed, he dipped deeply into his pockets and called on the services of a professional curse-lifter from a town many miles away. The old man arrived in a battered minivan, accompanied by two of his wives and a live chicken. He strode into the place of the wells with confidence writ large in every inch of his scrawny frame. He was back within two minutes with a white face and shaking limbs. He got back into the minivan and drove away. Sulieman never saw the man again, or his money.
After spending ten days alternately ranting and sulking, Sulieman did what he should probably have done in the first place, and made a visit to the holy man who inhabited a modest cave in the foothills of the great mountain two days’ walk from the wells. Of course, Sulieman didn’t walk, indeed the two-hour climb from the road to the hermit’s cave was almost too much for him and he reached the holy man on his hands and knees. He wasn’t there long, returning to his waiting jeep at great speed, slipping and sliding and snarling. His driver and guard both kept closed mouths and Sulieman sat biting his nails as the jeep sped back along the dirt road. Nobody cared to ask him what the hermit had said. Whatever it was it had dire consequences.
Sulieman’s luck went bad. His goats sickened, his fields bore no crops, his fiancé found somebody she liked more, and even his hair started to fall out. He stood this for one half of one year before calling a meeting with the village elders at which he apologised for any misunderstanding in the matter of the crumbling wells and withdrew all claim to the wells and their water. Then he packed a small bag and left the district never to return. Fatima burned the doll with his hair and fingernails in its belly, and life in the village returned to normal.
The water in the crumbling wells is sweet, and women of incomparable grace still fetch that water in the dawn light.