The title story from Ken Kalfus debut story collection, 'Thirst'

Published July 23, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

In hesitant, ungrammatical English occasionally swept clean by a gust of fluency, he told her that once while traveling across the desert, he had lost his way, and then his water. He nearly died, or perhaps he did die, and Paris was heaven. If so, he had first passed through hell, on the back of a rasping, worn-out camel. He told her that his lips had become puffy and cracked, his throat burned, he could hardly breathe. He was so dehydrated he had stopped perspiring. He passed in and out of delirium: He thought that he had entered a great but waterless city. Its people lined its unshaded boulevards, their stares reproaching him for his empty canteen. He rode further into the desert, no longer recalling his direction. When he dismounted he discovered that he could barely stand. He pulled his prayer mat from his pack, laid it on the baked sand in front of the animal, and wrapped his hand with a piece of cloth from his headdress. Then he shoved his fist between the camel's jaws. As he pushed his fingers against the back of its tongue, the camel bucked and tried to bite, but he held on to the beast with all that was left of his life. Finally, throwing its long, mournful head forward and furiously stamping the ground with a strangled, almost human cry, the camel vomited. Henri drank the vomit off the mat.

"You're revolting," Nula said, jarred fully awake. She had been gazing through the skylight and had lost herself in the desolate afternoon sky. She turned to him and lifted her head onto the heel of her hand.

He said, "A day later I reached a wadi."

They had met the day before at a bistro. His name was Henri, a French name, but his surname was Tatahouine. She had asked him to spell it. He was Moroccan. Nula didn't tell Madame Reynourd that she had phoned him, nor that she was going to see him, but she left his name and the name of the bistro on a note pad in a prominent position on her dresser. Just in case.

Just in case what? That she'd be abducted? Attacked? What? All week the twenty-year-old au pair had been in a peculiar state of mind, some species of happy dread. She knew she would eventually sleep with the Arab, and thereby lose that nearly abstract quality, or condition, that had seemed to have become her most tangible characteristic, but she had expected Paris to be its undoing anyway, and the waiting was worse than anything that might in fact happen. The Arab was her fate; so be it. She was not afraid. She had already proved that by leaving Ireland. And even as she was made dizzy by the thought of what she was doing, she was telling herself she would keep her head. If he wanted her, he would have to court her. She had nearly rung off when he suggested that she come directly to his flat. No, it would have to be at a bistro.

Nula arrived early and took a window table that commanded every approach to the bistro. The place she had instructed him to meet her was in the fifteenth arrondissement, prudently close to home but far enough that if this meeting turned out unpleasantly, she would not often be reminded of it. She ordered an orange mineral water. Sipping from the tall, sweaty glass, she wondered where she'd be in a few hours, how she'd feel. She tried to see into the future, but what she found was hazier than the memory of a dream: shadows and inaudible murmurs too vague to warn her if she were about to make a terrible mistake.

A warm hand touched the back of her shoulder and lightly massaged it. She twisted away, spilling some of her drink. It was Henri, coming out of the kitchen. "Good day, is it not?" he said, grinning at the alarm he read on her face. "A fine day to fall in love, I think."

"You work here?" she said, coloring.

He took the seat opposite her without removing his faded leather jacket or his cap. "My cousins," he explained.

Another Arab, a busboy, passed by and winked. Nula glared at the youth.

"I am a student," Henri reminded her.


"I hope that you did not need to wait much time."

"Only a few minutes," she said, sopping up the pale little puddles of her drink with a tissue from her purse.

"No, I mean, wait much time to meet a fellow like me."

"You're a real charmer, do you know that?"

"Thank you."

Elegantly raising his index finger, he summoned a waiter. Nula didn't understand what Henri told him. Henri then said in English, "My girlfriend would like ..." and turned to her with a solicitous smile.

"What I have now is fine thank you," she said, though in fact there was hardly anything left to it.

Henri shrugged and grinned at the waiter but tried again when he quickly returned with an unrecognizable black liquid in a sherry glass.

"Terrack," Henri said. "May I offer you some?"

"I'm not thirsty."

"It is very tasty."

"I prefer cold drinks."

"Would you like a beer? Beers are cold. In Ireland, I know, there are many beers: Guinness, Smithwick's, Murphy's, Harp ..." He added, "In America, the beer is very cold, so that it hurts the teeth. Budweiser. Miller."

"Have you been to America?" she asked abruptly. It came out like a challenge.

He sipped his drink, washed it around in his mouth, grimaced, and wiped his face with his hand.

"Wouldn't you like a glass?"

She shook her head.

"Not even a taste?" He again signalled the waiter.

"I won't drink it!" Nula insisted, more vehemently than she intended. "I don't want any."

Henri looked hurt. "This is what we drink in my country."

"We're not in your country."

"This is what we offer our neighbors, our family. This is how we begin friendships. It is an insult to turn down a drink."

"I'm not thirsty," she repeated. The waiter was bringing it anyway.

Henri laughed without smiling. "In my country," he said, "we are always thirsty. Do you know the rainfall amount in Morocco per year?"

He waited for an answer, even after she shook her head. Finally she said, "I don't know anything about Morocco."

"What do you think? A meter? Do you think 20 centimeters? Is that possible? It is a very small amount, you know. Paris gets fifty-six centimeters. Twenty centimeters is not much at all. So what do you think?"

"All right, twenty centimeters then."

Henri snorted and leaned over the table. "Twenty centimeters, hah! Not even half. The average rainfall, if you add the coast of the Atlantic and the north -- there is more rain there than in the south -- is less than a centimeter for the entire year. In the southern desert, nothing grows, except in the wadis, and there the grass is just clumps of weeds. And do you know that every year the desert is bigger than the year before? Yes, that is true. Advanced agriculture techniques from Europe, and still the desert grows. Morocco is a small country, much smaller than Algeria or Libya, but it is two times the land of Great Britain. And everywhere it is sand, except for a tiny village here and there around a spring or well, far apart from each other like the stars in space. In the villages the wells are guarded by police. And in the desert ..."

Henri paused. For a moment he was distracted, as if he had just seen something terrible down the street behind her. When he spoke again, his voice was bitter. "In the desert there are bandits who take nothing but your water. If they are caught, they are hanged as murderers. Have you ever been thirsty?"

She shrugged and ran her hand against the wet side of her empty glass. Her terrack remained in the center of the table. "I suppose," she said.

"No, no. I mean very thirsty. Let us say that you miss two meals. Then you are very hungry, yes. Your stomach hurts, you are faint. That is not so uncommon. You can remain many days without eating. But have you been so thirsty? So thirsty that you cannot take another step, you cannot even think. That is how thirsty you must be in the desert before you allow yourself the most tiny ration of water. Just a taste really, only enough amount to live and remind you that you remain thirsty. In Europe water runs from leaky faucets, washes streets, spills from fountains, am I right? Pools. Ice rinks. Water Piks. People take showers long enough to conduct sexual acts, do you know that? It is not francs that make this country rich, but its water."

Morocco, Henri went on, was a poor country. Many of its people were either malnourished or starving. Even their clothes and possessions were frail; the nation was about to crumble to powder and blow away. Cattle died. Staple crops failed. A windstorm was the only possible change in the weather. As Henri talked, his face close to hers, Nula felt herself removed to her own country, but what she saw was a seared, barren Ireland imprisoned beneath a vacuous blue sky, tumbleweeds in Wicklow, the pubs all boarded up. My poor parents, she thought, as her tongue swelled against the roof of her mouth. She raised her glass of Fanta and turned it over, but the trickle died before it reached her lips. Meanwhile, Henri's words came in a torrent. With such animation that he was levitated from his chair, he described his country's history, its Islam, its bazaars, its marvels. But always the conversation came back to its water, and the lack of it.

"You know it is an impossibility to drink saltwater, am I right? But imagine yourself so thirsty that you think you can, that this impossibility is only a legality. In fact imagine that you are so thirsty that you will drink poison. No, you say, I never will, yet there it is, I place it before you in a clean glass, and you are so thirsty. A slow-acting poison. Aconite, rotenone, a concentrated solution of paraquat. You think: I will not drink it, but I am so thirsty, I will just touch my lips to the surface and wet them. I will dampen them only. And maybe you have that control. But maybe you do not. Maybe you say, then, as you wet your lips, I will take a small drink, that is all. A gulp, yes? Just one quick gulp does not harm me, you say. It is as if I pass my hand quick through a candle flame. Or you say if I do not even think about it, it will not affect me. You promise, I will never drink poison again -- only this time, and only a small, small amount."

"Well ..." Nula began.

"And then the poison pours in your throat and you know you are lost. You even say to yourself, I have done it, I am poisoned, I might as well drink it all. The poison does not act yet, but you feel the liquid -- at least the wetness -- replenish your body, refill your cells, even as you die. And still you drink it."

"Never," she whispered through chapped lips.

Henri pulled away from her and sat back in his chair. He reached into the pocket of his jacket and, his hand cupped tenderly, removed several ounces of brilliant white sand. It was brighter than anything in the café, brighter than the day outside. It was not tainted by pocket lint, nor dirtied by small change. Although doing so hurt her eyes, Nula stared at it. He carefully deposited a little pile onto the table, next to the untouched glass of terrack.

"This is from the Sahara. I carry it around every day, so that I should know who I am, and what it means to be thirsty."

Without thinking, nearly in a trance (she told herself she was in a trance, but in fact she knew exactly what she was doing), she brought the terrack to her lips.

The drink was sweet. It reminded her of Bailey's.

"This isn't so bad," she admitted, but as she put the glass down she realized it had done nothing to satisfy her thirst. Instead, the syrupy liquid coating the inside of her mouth turned sour and then bitter, and then from bitter to caustic. She needed water. She twisted around in her seat. There weren't any waiters in the dining room, only several busboys leaning against the far wall, ignoring her.

She couldn't even spit it out. The only way to kill the taste was to drink more.

"Please, take leisure and finish it," Henri said pleasantly, rising from the table. "But now I must leave."

"You're leaving?"

"You will telephone me."

"Where are you going?" she asked, nearly choking. The gummy terrack was burning the back of her throat.

"To visit my mother. Every Sunday afternoon I bring to her newspapers, and a dessert, often a chocolate religieuse. She loves desserts."

He extended his hand and, without thinking, she offered him hers. He swooped to it like a buzzard and kissed it. His lips were cool, moist.

"She lives in Paris?"

"Saint Denis," he said. It sounded to Nula like sandy knee. "She comes when she is twelve, after the war, when life is very bad in my country. Of course, in my country life is worse now. Or so we sometimes hear, or read, or believe, or dream. She never thinks to return. All time I think to go. Thank you for a very pleasant appointment. You will come to my flat. It is a chambre de bonne, but very nice, I believe. The morning is the best time. The most romance."

"But wait!" Nula cried.

Henri, however, just smiled and casually saluted her. Nula's face was flushed, every membrane in her mouth and nose parched, her eyes shrunk into her sockets. She heard her pulse accelerate, tapping against the inside of her ears. She tried to return the smile, but her lips were too blistered. The Moroccan left the café and disappeared into the blazing midday sun.

By Ken Kalfus

Ken Kalfus' collection "Thirst" was chosen as one of Salon's 10 favorite books of 1999. His new book, "Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies" will be published in September.

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