Tania was afraid of the waterhole, but not in a trembling way. Not like fawn cowering behind its mother. What Tania felt was more like respect. An intense reverence for its ability to transform lives. When a person entered the water, there was no telling what might happen. She felt it best to keep her distance.
No one really knew how long the waterhole had been there. Centuries, millennia? Many explorers had searched the desert, desperately seeking the rumored water, only to die of dehydration and heat stroke. It was only in the past forty years that anyone had successfully reached it.
It was hard to say which of the explorers had seen the waterhole first. This had been a matter of strong debate among the colonial families. But one thing was certain. If not for the cool water, they surely would have perished.
Tania’s grandfather was one of the colony’s original settlers and was well-known in exploration circles. She’d grown up hearing about the strenuous journey he and the others had made through the desert. They’d traveled for weeks and were completely out of supplies when a dust storm kicked up. It wasn’t until they had crawled up the peak of an enormous sand dune that they had spotted their salvation.
Along with the others, Tania’s grandfather formed a colony around the perimeter of the waterhole. Shortly after their arrival they began to witness its mysterious power. The first incident had been the restoration of sight to Tania’s grandmother, a woman who had been blind since birth. She had lingered along the banks for weeks until one day, a vapor rose up, and meeting her eyes, her sight was restored.
The second transformation, however, had an adverse affect on a man who hoped to have his youth restored. One day the water bubbled up and the man was struck mute. The third incident turned an old woman into a beautiful butterfly. There was no predicting how the water would behave.
As time passed, rumors of the powerful waterhole began to circulate throughout The Wilderness and eventually reached the outside world. A rough trade route through the desert had gradually developed, and it seemed that at least once a week, another stranger would plod onto the scene, thirsty for the magic of the water.
To be sure, the waterhole was an enigma. A small oasis in the middle of the desert with a climate all its own. Stretching approximately a kilometer in length, the dark water was in the shape of an oblong sphere. The soil surrounding the waterline was packed rich with nutrients that fertilized the earth half a meter out from the shoreline. Lush trees bore glorious fruit year-round. Oranges, lemons, persimmons, and plums. Colors and flavors that could not be matched. Colonists often escaped to the shade under the branches, as the heat of the surrounding desert often reached an unbearable fifty-six degrees Celsius.
“Daddy, where did the waterhole come from? And why aren’t there trees anywhere else?” Tania had asked her father when she was six years old.
Jonathan Flanders had been born in the desert. In time he had discovered infinite things about The Wilderness that puzzled him, but rather than admit this to his daughter, he would respond back with his own questions.
“Where do you think it came from?” Thus far, Tania had not come up with a plausible answer.
Tania’s father ran the tiny outpost that provided basic food and supplies to hopeful pilgrims. From the covering of their large tent, Tania could adequately observe the travelers as they stumbled into the colony and headed straight to the water’s edge. Sometimes they would sit there for days, not daring to move. These were people were yearning for the impossible.
“Daddy, that man’s been sitting there a long time. Don’t you think he’s awfully bored?” She had been seven years of age when the feeble old man had arrived. She had watched him spend three long months sitting by the water’s edge, desperately longing for his hearing to be restored.
“Sometimes you have to spend a lot of time doing nothing in order to get something,” Jonathan had said, secretly cheering for the old man.
Now Tania was eighteen, and over the years she had seen many come and go without healing. It was only the ones who were willing to wait that experienced change. These were the ones who saw supernatural wonders. What frightened Tania was when the outcome was different than what was desired. For this reason, Tania chose to avoid it completely.
“Wanna go for a swim?” Tania was wiping the sweat from her forehead and reaching for a glass of water when her friend Henry popped his head into the outpost early one morning.
“Henry, when are you going to stop asking me that?” Tania snipped at him. It was only six ‘o’ clock, but the heat was already unbearable.
“When you finally decide to go swimming with me,” Henry said, and she just rolled her eyes at him.
“You’ve been asking me the same question for ten years, and I’ve been telling you ‘no’ for ten years. Don’t you ever give up?”
“Nope,” Henry said. He started to whistle his signature tune and headed towards the water.
The day Henry first came to the colony had been a memorable one for Tania. It had been shortly after her eighth birthday. Henry’s parents were researchers who had been sent on behalf of their native country of Australia. In time, Henry’s parents had finished their work in the desert, but Henry chose to remain. There was nowhere else he wanted to be.
When he first arrived, Tania was the only other child living in the colony. The arid region was not the sort of environment that attracted families. Tania’s own mother and brother had died in childbirth, and the last family with youngsters had recently vacated the area. Surrounded by adults, Tania was both elated and disappointed at having another child arrive on the scene. This was her territory, after all, and she wasn’t quite sure how to interact with her peers.
“You talk funny,” she informed Henry as he had stopped the outpost to introduce himself. She had never heard anyone talk the way he did. At first she hadn’t even realized he was speaking English.
Rather than be offended, Henry had replied, “Me? You’re the one with the accent. If you came to Sydney, everyone would think you were talking funny.” Tania’s grandfather had been from India and her grandmother from England. Over time, the version of English they spoke had blended with the various accents of the new settlers until a unique English dialect had been formed.
Since he’d arrived in the desert, Henry had made a habit of swimming in the waterhole at least once a day, sometimes two or three times. Tania remembered the first time she’d seen him go for a swim. She had trailed behind him as he stripped down to his shorts. Tania had gulped as he moved to the edge and yelled, “Stop!”
“What?” Henry had asked, turning around and smiling so that she could see the space between his front two teeth.
“It’s dangerous,” she had managed to croak out.
Henry just shook his head and resumed his diving position. Before she could utter another word, he had disappeared from sight. Ten seconds passed, then twenty without any sign of Henry. She held her breath and anxiously willed him to resurface. A huge sigh of relief escaped her lungs when Henry’s wet blond hair finally popped back up.
“Daddy, can you believe that boy? Does he think he’s a fish or something?” Tania had complained to her father. Didn’t he know his laps were not proper oasis behavior? Most folks simply dangled their feet, while others would gently slide in and slowly marinate in the cool water. Tania had never seen anyone swim the length of the waterhole before.
“Seems like he knows how to enjoy himself,” Jonathan had told her, admiring the boy for his pluck.
“Doesn’t he know the waterhole’s for soaking? Why don’t his parents make him behave?”
“He’ll be alright,” Jonathan had assured her and tried to convince her to relax. Henry could take care of himself.
Ten years later and little had changed between Henry and Tania. Although he was two years older than Tania, she had always considered Henry her junior. Even now, at twenty years old, he still acted like such a boy.
On this particular morning, Tania was feeling exceptionally irritable. The temperature had dropped to a surprising chill the night before, and she’d been unable to sleep comfortably. Now it was sweltering, and her father wasn’t around to help run things. He’d left for Pilgrim’s Cove weeks ago, and it would be weeks until he returned. For the next month she was saddled with running the operation alone, and she was not in the mood to deal with hopeful miracle seekers.
“Will he ever grow up?” Tania muttered as she watched Henry dive under the water. She kept waiting for the day when he would stop acting like a child. Under the thick awning, Tania leaned back in her chair, drinking a glass of water and cooling herself with a paper fan someone had brought from The Crossroads and traded for a roll of twine.
“Come on, Henry,” Tania said scanning the water for his sun-bleached hair. Henry spent most days in the sun, taking care of the animals that lived in the region. He had a way with the camels and the wild dogs, the birds and the sheep. He was considered the colony’s honorary veterinarian.
“Henry, seriously hurry up,” Tania instructed, as if he could hear her. Over the years he’d learned to hold his breath for an extensive length of time. Lately he’d gotten up to a minute, and she’d been telling him that was long enough.
Tania sighed and stepped out of the tent. The sun bore down on her thick black hair as she walked closer to the water. Her heart beat faster as two minutes passed, then three, and still Henry was nowhere to be seen.
“Did you see him? Did you see that boy? I mean man? Did you see a man with blond hair?” After five minutes, Tania began calling out to the crowd of bathers.
“Haven’t seen him,” was the general consensus.
“Help! Help!” By now Tania was shouting to anyone who would pay attention. She needed these people to help her. Didn’t they understand? Henry had completely vanished.
To be continued…
Embracing life’s wilderness through music & community