...inspired by my wife.
The air smelled of mildew as she plugged the treadmill’s electric chord into a nearby outlet and listened to the hum of it’s motor, it’s nylon belt easing forward with a lazy groan.
She stepped onto the slow moving conveyer, each hand wrapped around a plastic support, and began walking, her thoughts wrestling over what to do with the aging basement’s moisture problem.
She was in her mid-thirties. A petite mother of three. Each in their own bedroom and hopefully fast asleep.
Her hair, the color of harvested wheat, was pulled back into a tail, the longer strands bouncing and tickling the nape of her bare neck with each step. Her clothes were loose-fitting, a gray t-shirt covered in blue paint stains from one of her recently completed home projects, and her black cotton shorts, rolling over her thighs in gentle waves of fabric.
On her feet were a pair of white Nikes. Walking shoes equipped with gel insoles for better support. They felt like tiny pillows under each heel. Money well spent.
Having fallen into sync with the belt’s speed, she let go of the supports and began pumping her arms with the steady pace of each step. Her breathing remained under control. Inhale through the nose, exhale slowly and out through the mouth. A technique she’d learned from her husband.
The hour was late. The only light in the basement came from the nearby television, it’s screen flickering, it’s volume muted. The Fitness Channel. A group of tanned bodies dance-stepping through an aerobic routine in the foreground of some tropical island. Hawaii or maybe Greece.
Minutes passed. Her pace quickened. Getting into it now. She reached up and brushed away a tuft of bangs which had fused to her moistened forehead. Before dropping her arm, she swung it forward toward the built in cup holder, reaching for her thermos.
Keeping her legs moving, she tilted the thermos to her mouth and accepted a swallow.
Water. A cool trickle sliding down her throat.
She returned the metallic thermos to the holder and began cycling her arms with each step.
Three miles. That was her goal. That would make a difference.
Her eyes drifted down to her feet. A blurred motion of white running shoes. Going nowhere fast. Her thoughts wandered...
At that moment, over seven thousand miles away,
across an ocean and to the far southeastern ridge of a barren landscape, another woman, of the same age, was also walking.
Weatherbeaten split ends and tufts of frizzy curls had been pulled back to an ebony bundle and wrapped with an assortment of beads and hemp.
A thin cotton dress, once red but long faded to a dull brown, clung to her body as a sultry breeze pulled at it’s fibers.
She walked barefoot over a landscape dominated in red clay. Her calloused heels, like crushed asphalt, hardly registered the gritty pebbles and sharp fragments of deteriorating earth jabbing at her skin.
Sprouts of dying foliage peaked out through countless fissures, reaching toward the unyielding sun as if begging for just a drop of precipitation. But the rainy season remained months away.
Clutched in each hand she carried a gallon-sized jug made of the same clay from under her feet. Molded to resemble an ordinary pot, each one was peaked with a long neck, an open mouth on top, and a crudely formed handle for easier transport.
Both jugs were currently empty, allowing her to swing them at her side with each step. If all went well, by late afternoon she would return with both jugs full.
She looked up from the red soil with eyes the color of mocha, and scanned the sun-drenched terrain. Far to the north were the Simen Mountains, the largest range in Ethiopia. To the south, the Omo River, it’s lush waters branching off from the mighty Nile, etching a path through the barren landscape to eventually dump into Lake Turkana along the northern coast of Kenya. Much too far to walk.
She was heading east. To a slowly deteriorating water hole shared by both villagers and the local wildlife as their only means of the most sacred and scarce resource in Africa.
“Maji,” she breathed.
She lowered the empty jugs to the ground, steadying her breath. She placed a palm over her mid-section. Felt the swelling lump just above her waist. A smile creased her dried lips. She was starting to show.
“Mtoto,” she murmured.
A lone bird flew overhead, it’s massive shadow resembling an albatross while slicing a path through the sunny rays. It issued a distant caw. On the hunt for prey long buried under ground until the rains began.
The desert floor is no place for man or beast during the dry season. Unless of course a need justified the means. One necessary for survival.
A hazy breeze pushed weightless dust into her face as she retrieved the clay jugs teetering on the sand. Three miles to the maji. Facing the torrent conditions defiantly, she continued on. One step at a time...
She’d achieved the mid-way point a few minutes earlier. The steady whine of the treadmill and the timely thudding of her steps were the only sounds she could hear.
She could feel beads of sweat leaving vapor trails from her neck down to moistened crevices of skin under her shirt. She’d be heading to the shower soon. Dumping her sweaty clothes into the washing machine along the way.
A new fitness show had replaced the one from Hawaii. More aerobic athletes strutting their stuff. This group appeared to be working out on a mountain ledge overlooking some barren desert. Nothing but sand and sun. A lonely palm tree in the distance.
Focusing on the whereabouts of the new workout show, her concentration lapsed, her breath quickening. Growing erratic.
Realizing her error, she quickly reached for the handles, steadying her balance. Her breathing slowed.
Striving for distance was all about one’s control. Not working the lungs too hard. Her husband’s advice. Point taken.
Now feeling the burn in her thighs, she again reached for her thermos. Her eyes drifted back to the desert background on the T.V. screen as she tilted the bottle toward her mouth. Something about the landscape troubled her.
She swallowed. Cool water easing down her throat. Suppressing the burn.
Then she remembered. An article she’d read somewhere about the people of Africa and their constant struggle for drinking water. People dying everyday because of a resource taken for granted in America.
For a moment her legs slowed, her thoughts drifting to a place on the other side of the globe. A place in dire need.
Then, an idea formed. One of those inspirations that sometimes flash through one’s mind like a bolt of lightning, offering an option outside the box. Something that could change everything.
Her feet nearly came to a stop. But not quite. Just like a bolt of lightning. There, then gone in moments if not grasped.
With a shake of her head, her focus returned, her steps increasing. After all, what could one person do?
One mile to go...
She approached the watering hole cautiously. While her raw throat burned, and a tear leaked from the corner of an eye at the sight of water, safety held her at bay.
The watering hole, which had shrunken in the past month to no more than a large mud puddle, was surrounded in grassy foliage and a tall cluster of palms. The perfect setting for a lounging pride of lions, or even worse, a bathing hippo.
She remained on alert, studying the swaying grasses in search of movement. Minutes passed. A bird, perhaps the same one which had flown overhead an hour earlier, screeched at her from it’s perch under the shade of a rustling palm.
At last she smiled. Besides the bird, she was alone.
She dropped to her knees at the water’s edge, cool mud greeting her tired legs. Both clay jugs slid from hands.
Reaching toward the water, she cupped her palms and a moment later brought soothing refreshment to her mouth. Rusty-brown in color, and littered with drowned insects, but maji nonetheless. It dripped from her chafed lips in muddy droplets.
Movement off to her left caused her body to suddenly stiffen. She spotted a snake slithering through the yellowed grasses on the other side of the watering hole.
“Nyoka,” she mumbled, watching as the snake left an impression the size of a man’s forearm through the mud in it’s wake. Her eyes followed it’s path into the thinning vegetation and out of sight before releasing a breath.
Then she grabbed the clay jugs and quickly lowered them into the water. It was time to go. Luck would soon run out.
Minutes later she hefted both jugs and rose wearily. The extra weight caused her bare feet to sink into the mud, her toes disappearing from sight. With a grunt she pulled herself from the muck and turned away from the shaded savanna.
The walk back would come with greater strain from the now full water jugs. But there was no choice.
She studied the horizon, a distant painting of blazing reds bleeding into soft peach as the sun began it’s evening descent. She’d have to hurry. Walking through the open desert at night was a recipe for disaster.
Releasing a sigh, she began moving her feet back across the hardened soil. Three miles. One step at a time...
She’d almost done it. Five more minutes. She was huffing, having lost control of her breathing at two and a half miles.
She’d given up on watching the swaying bodies of athletes on television, needing every ounce of concentration for the last quarter mile.
Under her marching Nikes, the treadmill motor quietly hummed. Her sinuses were closing, causing her open mouth to take over all respiratory duties. No doubt from the mildew problem. Something would have to be done about that.
An eighth of a mile to go.
The soft thudding of small footsteps caused her to glance up toward the basement ceiling. Still walking, she listened as the steps led into one of the first floor bathrooms. Running water from the faucet drained along the pipes behind the muted television.
The water stopped and the thudding footsteps faded back the way they’d come. She smiled. One of the kids needed a drink. Probably her youngest son. Part of his nightly routine.
A tenth of a mile to go. Her eyes fell back to the flickering television. A workout in the desert...
The sun had shrunken to a flaming scythe. A multitude of stars had begun twinkling like ever distant light bulbs overhead. The desert had turned a shade of purple, it’s sand fading to white. Soon it would glow under the night sky. She was running out of time.
Her breathing had become labored. In a matter of weeks she’d no longer be able to make this journey across the sands. Then help would be needed. What little there was.
A drop of moisture running down the back of her leg to collect at her ankle caused her to stop in mid-stride. She raised one of the clay jugs to eye level, fearing a leak.
She was studying the hardened clay for any signs of a crack when a second drop tickled the skin along her Achilles and down to her heel.
She looked down, studying the back of her leg. Then realizing what was in fact not water, but blood.
Both clay jugs slipped from her grasp, toppling onto their sides and spilling their contents over the desert floor.
She reached down and lifted her dress. Her hands returned, bloodied palms hovered in front of her face.
She dropped to her knees, the cracked earth under her feet refusing to cushion her fall. Tears like long forgotten raindrops leaked from her eyes. Her hands went to her swollen belly. Fists covered in blood, clenching her ragged attire into wrinkled balls of dusty cotton.
Out of her mouth she uttered a scream. “Mtoto! Mtoto!”
The looming shadow of a lone bird flew overhead...
More than seven thousand miles away, across an ocean and nestled into the heartland of a country bursting in riches, a woman flips a switch, quieting her treadmill. She whisks a remote control through the air like a magic wand, and the screen on her television fades to black. She kicks off her running shoes, acknowledging the throb in each heel. Then she lifts her thermos to her lips one last time before heading upstairs to take a shower.
Three miles. She wonders if it made a difference.