Friday 10 May 2024

"Nature, the Environment and Sustainability" Competition: Winning Entries 4

Over five days, we're delighted to be publishing the winning entries from the short story competition, "Nature, the Environment and Sustainability," which ran in 2023-4. The competition, commissioned by the University of Leicester’s Centre for New Writing and Centre for Environmental Health and Sustainability, was judged by the celebrated nature writer, Mark Cocker, and showcased at this year’s Literary Leicester free literature festival.

You can see the results here. There were two winners, one specially commended entry, and two runners-up. Each day, we're publishing one of these winning entries. Today, you can read one of the two winning stories, "The Fog Harvesters," by Lee Wright.

Lee Wright is a naturalist and cinephile. He is currently working towards a PhD researching memoir and film’s relationship to reality. 

The Fog Harvesters

Bekele and his wife Kidist spend their nights in the forest, high in the mountains of central Kenya. They collect water from the trees, carry the yellow plastic jerrycans to their home, put empty ones back out. Bekele looks at Kidist, shadowed by a towering tree as she pins a plastic sheet made from discarded packaging to the bark. Together they wait for the fog to come and the water to form on the tree. Bekele can almost hear the moisture as it slowly rolls down the trunk, onto the plastic and into the jerrycan. The night cools and Bekele pulls on his wool hat, zips up his old fleece. Kidist gives the jerrycan a little kick with the toe of her rubber boot, ‘We need the trees to cry,’ she says.

It was Kidist who taught Bekele about the fog, how the forest heats up during the day, causing the moisture to evaporate into the air, and how the moisture condenses in the cool night. She puts a finger to the bark and wets her lips with a water droplet.

‘We must have tears,’ she says.

As a boy, Bekele watched his mother and father struggle to bring enough water to their home. The rainy season often failed them. Kidist tests the plastic sheet and moves on to the next tree. Bekele has seen the rivers drying up, remembers the feeling of his mother’s dried lips when she kissed him goodnight. The droughts have followed him into adulthood. It is a curse that Kidist is trying to lift. Drought is the war they both fight. Collecting the fog and dew has been handed down through Kidist’s family for generations, her parents would use banana leaves and metal pots. Bekele’s arms are shaky from carrying the jerrycans, which seem to sprout from the trees like roots. Nothing exists without water. The fog keeps Bekele, Kidist and their cow alive. In their small house, Kidist will boil the water and give her husband a cup and they will wearily toast another successful night of harvesting, while batting away the insects, sending them reeling.  Sometimes they wash one another in the tears from the trees. Bekele pours a jug over his wife’s shoulders and kisses her skin.

From the house, Bekele often watches Kidist whisper into the ear of their cow she named Nuru, after the daughter they lost. Their one and only child. His wife will take a break each day to whisper something to Nuru. He never asks what it is she whispers. Perhaps she is promising more water? Nuru recognises Kidist every time. Once a week Kidist will go to their daughter’s resting place and not return from the small grave until it is time to harvest the fog. When his wife is sad, Bekele feels like a chained-up dog, unable to do anything good for her. 

Kidist says the best sound is that of the water sloshing back and forth as they carry the jerrycans and she is right. The best feeling is when she wriggles her toes in the water when they have enough of it to bathe in. Before Bekele harnessed the fog from the trees, he would walk three miles along the dirt roads with his mother to a school where there was a water tap. Bekele would close his eyes and run his hand over the corrugated steel of the school’s structure as they waited their turn at the tap. Inside the school was a bird in a metal cage. He noticed the way the bird would watch as the people stood in line. His mother would say that his deceased grandmother was the bird. Look, Bekele, she is watching you, she is watching, and she hears when you complain. She is grinning away at her grandchild. See the movement of her head? And Bekele would stand, his feet in a dust cloud. He wondered if the bird ever sang, would it be a sorrow song? He never thought it was just a lie. He thinks of that bird when the fog is moved by the wind. He will never forget how his family would spend entire days thirsty, how his father sometimes writhed with agony. His father always ached. He wishes that his mother was here. He would say, listen how the night is full of crying trees. He would show her how the fog comes and wipes away their thirst.

‘There are places in this world where you can stand and be totally at peace,’ Kidist says.

Above her, the branches bend towards and away from each other. Bekele looks at his cracked knuckles – his father’s knuckles. The trees follow one another. In the village, some of the people sleep. Kidist has her eye on the damp bark. The jerrycans gradually fill, a good night for fog, but there is no applause. Bekele moves between the trees, his head going down a little with tiredness. No one, he thinks, will be able to find them amongst these trees, too tall to see over. As the fog crawls, he feels restored, taken out of himself. He counts the trees like he counts his blessings. As far as Bekele is concerned, they have no choice. Harvest the fog or die, and he has never much fancied dying. The trees seem to grow taller every night. It makes him feel almost safe. Almost. In the fog, Bekele’s breathing becomes calm. The water is on its way. Bekele rubs at his thin chest as he walks through the dark. Kidist shouts at him to come, two jerrycans are ready. Bekele takes hold, one in each hand.

‘You go,’ Kidist says.

Bekele can hear the rhythmic slosh of the water as he heads for home. He is fulfilling his mother’s destiny. He forgets the discomfort, thinks of nothing but endless water. Tomorrow he will wash. It will be good to feel clean. At the house he investigates the piece of mirror Kidist keeps bedside their mattress. Bekele feels sure he will see the face of his father. He hopes to meet his parents again in the afterlife, where he will tell them about the fog and the trees. He looks at his dirty fleece. Twelve years he has had this one fleece. He stares hard at himself. At the narrow scar on his throat. He cannot help wishing he was rich. Somewhere nearby a child is wailing. He can’t remember the sound Nuru made when she cried. He takes a drop of un-boiled water from a jerrycan, hears again the wailing child. Bekele wants to sit down and close his eyes, but he rolls up both sleeves and walks back to the forest. Kidist is hoping the fog will be heavy tonight. There is no way of knowing now if the fog will be enough. They move together, checking jerrycan after jerrycan. Kidist has never been frightened of the forest at night. She sometimes mocks Bekele for his fear. There is only one thing that frightens his wife and that is not having enough water.

‘You’re quiet,’ she says.

‘I am remembering my mother,’ Bekele says.

Kidist considers this for a second. She moves close to her husband, puts her hand in his. He kisses her on the head, and she stands back, nods. He can see her kindness. He also sees the possibility of a waterless future for them. He is trying to piece together what might happen if the fog one night vanishes and never returns. To think they will have to again walk so far just for water. On some nights, the fog is nothing. Bekele and Kidist flit from shadow to shadow, touching the bark. Some trees have bark like sharp teeth, though the trees have never drawn blood from Kidist or Bekele. Their eyes got used to the darkness long ago, but they still move carefully, giddy for the mist. Bekele imagines what it would be like to leap into the ocean. He would be foolish at first. Go in too deep and stay in too long until the water had softened his skin. He will never see so much water. They collect the moisture to help not just themselves, but those who cannot make it to the forest and whose mouths are dry. Kidist watches the plastic sheets attentively. Bekele can see her eyes. Her hands move to the tree, several times she taps the bark, nodding her head. All they can do now is wait. Bekele clears his throat. Long stretches of waiting.

‘I should have been born a tree,’ Kidist says.

Bekele keeps his hands by his sides.

‘Then you would live a long time,’ he says.

The moonlight cools Bekele’s face. It sits on his heart. Ignites his lungs. The trees are giants, who stand great and still. The forest, Bekele, and Kidist are determined to live and live and live.

‘The fog will come,’ she tells him, ‘It will come. All we have to do is wait.’

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