Listen. . .
On a velvety night in a desert land, a cool wind moved among dunes and glided into a small village. The curious wind lifted the long limbs of the date palm trees, touched the donkey’s fur in the stable, and poked through the open window of Ayesha’s room in her family’s house. The wind circled the room quietly, then with a rustle and a sigh slipped out the window.
In her bed, Ayesha dreamed. What was she dreaming of? The ocean, although the most water Ayesha had ever seen was in the small buckets drawn glistening from the village’s deep black well. Earlier that day her father had told her stories of the great sea—giant waves, and whales as big as dunes, and strange fish, and sailors on boats riding the sea’s broad back.
So, while the wind whispered through the dark village, Ayesha dreamed of traveling to the water beyond the desert. She picked up a flat loaf of bread, in case she got hungry on her trip, and slipped from her house. Everything was quiet outside and glowed in silvery light.
“Where are you going?” A kangaroo rat sat up on her legs, sniffing the air.
“I am going to see the Ocean,” Ayesha replied.
“Do you know which way to go?”
“Well, no, I don’t.” Ayesha stopped, realizing she had not thought about which direction to walk.
The rat hopped into the air, then her bright eyes spied the brown loaf Ayesha carried.
“I’m amazed, simply amazed, I can see that you will need help. It’s quite a walk. Is that bread for your journey?”
“Not just any bread will do, you know? Let me have a piece to see if it’s the right bread. Yes, bread for long trips must be special.”
Ayesha was puzzled. “Why?”
The rat blinked twice, sputtering, “Why, you ask, why? Oh, my word, it has to be. . .very white, because if it were not, it would be. . .dark. And my oh my, dark bread, you”―the rat stopped, then leaped into the air―”you would lose it in the sand, yes, unless it is white it will blend in with the sand. Give me a piece so I can examine it properly. Please.”
Ayesha tore a small piece and placed it before the rat, who lifted it in her tiny pink claws to peer at it closely with one eye.
“Hmm,” the rat muttered, “yes,” taking a bite, “I think this bread is sufficiently white.” In a flash, she had eaten the small piece.
“Do you know where the Ocean is?” Ayesha asked, as the rat stroked her whiskers and combed the fur on her cheeks.
“Well, I just might. I can see that you will need some pointers regarding the Ocean.” The rat eyed the moist bread Ayesha was tucking into a fold of her djellaba. “Maybe I should travel with you for a bit, to make sure you get off on the right path. I think I shall, because, after all, I am a mother and must help you, child of another mother.”
“Thank you, that would be kind. May I know your name? What should I call you?”
“Well, Bibi is my name. I am Bibi.”
Ayesha introduced herself, then said, “Which way do we travel to reach the great Ocean?”
Bibi stood on her hind legs, took a sniff, and spoke solemnly.
“We must go that way to reach the Ocean most quickly,” pointing with her sharp pink nose to the end of the path, past the last house. The rat scuttled over and stopped at Ayesha’s side, looking up. “Let’s go, for we have a long walk. . .”
“Wake up, my flower, it is morning. Time to get out of bed, my sleepy dove.” Ayesha’s mother bent down, smiling, her cool hand touching Ayesha’s cheek.
* * *
The bucket banged against Ayesha’s leg as she shuffled to the well. However, before she could even see the well she heard voices.
“What will I do for my meals, with the husband’s brother visiting today?”
“Why, I could barely get half a bucket yesterday!”
“My sister dreamed this would happen, two nights ago.”
The well was surrounded by women talking, their dark djellabas flapping as their hands flew like excited birds, bracelets ringing. Ayesha stopped and listened more, then ran all the way home, her bucket banging against her legs.
“The well has run dry! There is no more water!”
* * *
In the shade of a date palm the village council addressed the villagers, saying the well diggers had been sent for. “We did not watch carefully for the signs, and our well has left us dry. We must guard each drop left as if it were a jewel, until our new well gives us water.”
Words flew deep into the night as the villagers talked and talked. Lying in bed, Ayesha drifted as if on water, the voices like waves that kept coming and coming. After her house and the village turned quiet and slept, Ayesha rose up, gathered a half loaf of bread and slipped out to sit under the moon, as she had the night before in her dream. Her parents would scold her if they knew, asleep behind their striped curtain. But things were serious, and she wanted to think.
As Ayesha sat at the top of a dune, eating and wishing she knew how to help the village, a kangaroo rat appeared, hopping up the dune. Ayesha watched, and then, it spoke to her.
“Hello again, Ayesha, mother’s daughter. Do you still wish to visit the Ocean?”
It was Bibi, the rat from her dream! Ayesha was excited, but then remembered.
“No, I can’t, the village well is dry, and we must find new water. Mother worries that the well diggers will have cloudy eyes and see no place to dig. What will we do?”
The rat laughed a little and chittered, but did not stop her hopping, enjoying the circle she made in the sand. “Humans are so helpless. I know there is water, and I know where it lives. How else could we ever drink in such a dry place? We don’t have nice wells and big buckets to drink our fill from. I can’t dig any more than you can balance on your tail. We have to know where the water is easiest to reach, or we’re in the hands of trouble.”
“How do you know where the water is?”
“Oh, don’t be silly. Can’t you hear it? Sometimes it’s loud enough to wake a sleeping donkey.”
“The water. It talks constantly. Water usually just moves somewhere else. We can listen and find the place where it went. But we’ll need some help, some more sharp ears, to save time.”
The rat stopped her hopping, sat straight up, and passed her paws through her fur a few times. Then she closed her eyes and began beating her tail on the sand rapidly, her eyes shut tight and her whiskers twitching with the effort. After thumping for a while, she stopped. “There. That will do. Whew, drumming is lots of work, I think I need a morsel of bread to keep my strength up.”
“What were you doing?” Ayesha asked, handing a small piece of bread to Bibi, who hopped once then ate the bread in one gulp.
“Just asking for help. It should be here by now.” Indeed, small shadows were hopping toward Ayesha and Bibi; more kangaroo rats. Nine had answered Bibi’s call, and squatted in a half circle before her, whiskers twitching and eyes gleaming under the moon.
“What took you so long? What if I had been in trouble? It certainly seems that I better learn to fend for myself and not count on you lazytails.” Bibi held her sharp nose in the air.
One rat, whose tail had a kink just before its tip, spoke up in a weary voice. “It is the middle of the night, Bibi, this is our busiest time, and we have many chores to do. I was getting ready to catch a juicy cricket when you called. What do you want this time?”
“I’m sure by now you’ve all heard the humans scurrying around fussing because the water got tired of the old well and moved. This little girl will give us bread if we will find where the water went. Yes, Ayesha?” Bibi looked up at Ayesha.
“Certainly,” Ayesha said brightly and pulled the bread from her sleeve, waving it. Immediately there was twitching and chittering and a few somersaults. The rat with the bent tail spoke.
“We will happily help, but may we have a taste first? We have hard work to do, after all.”
“Certainly,” Ayesha again responded. She sat, and the rats gathered politely in a circle, balancing on their tails. As Ayesha placed a small piece of bread in each set of pink paws, she heard a quiet Shokran. “You’re welcome,” she replied to each.
Bibi called, “Good, let’s go to the old well and start from there.”
* * *
At the old well, Bibi told the other rats, “Now, form a line, and grab the tail of your brother or sister on your right. Good, now spread apart until―”
“Ouch, that’s attached, you know.”
“Mahmoud, stop it. Good. This way we make sure we don’t miss any ground and stay close together. Listen closely for the water’s voice, and we’ll start walking from the well. First, let’s go…that way.”
Ayesha sat on the well’s lip, watching as the line of rats walked under the moon, each holding a neighbor’s tail.
Date palms rustled as the wind returned, and a dog barked somewhere on the village’s far side―at this the line of rats hopped in the air, but then kept walking.
Ayesha climbed down from the well and followed the rats, and soon an excited voice said, “I hear the water, right here.”
The others dropped tails and gathered, on empty sand just beyond the village edge, then all began hopping and chattering.
“Yes, I hear it.”
“My, the water sighs loudly.”
But when Ayesha knelt she could not hear a thing except the whisper of sand. “Are you sure?” Ayesha peered at Bibi, who was grooming the fur on her right rear leg.
“Oh yes, it is here, and not that far underground, the new well will not need to be very deep. We promised to find water, and we take promises very seriously. So, let’s mark the spot so it can be found in the daylight.”
Ayesha piled stones where the rats told her. Then, Bibi spoke again.
“We have kept our part of our agreement, now it is your turn. May we have our bread, please? It will be good for us to return to our homes with something tasty for our families.”
Ayesha divided her bread among the rats, each politely saying Shokran then hopping off into the darkness. Last came Bibi.
“Shokran, Ayesha. The water will be sweet and cool. Goodbye.”
* * *
When Ayesha awoke the next morning, she ran to her mother and told her of the kangaroo rats and the place for the new well.
“Hush, child, this is not the time for dreams. Today is baking day, and we have much to do.”
Her father said, “Not now, my daughter, tell me your stories later. I must go out before the sun gets too high. Until the new well is dug, I must take extra care of our garden.”
No one would listen! It was not a dream (was it?), but she couldn’t tell her parents the truth, that she had snuck out of the house in the dark night. Ayesha thought hard about how to convince her parents that she knew where the new well could be dug.
And she had an idea.
Excited but tired, she lay in her bed that night, and when the fat round moon rolled out to sit on the soft dunes, Ayesha again slipped from her house. First, she walked to a place in the village where she knew date palm trees had been planted. She carefully dug up one of the young trees, almost as tall as she, and covered up the hole. Then, she carried the small tree to the spot beyond the village where the rats had heard water. There was the stone pile, and she planted the tree. Wind stirred everything in a gust when she finished, scattered sand, and helped erase her traces.
Then she giggled.
* * *
Next morning, she said nothing about the tree, although she felt as if she might burst with excitement. But, after chores, when Ayesha played chase with her friends Fatima, Habibi, and Melila, she ran down a village path to the desert’s edge, to where, wonder of wonders, a new tree grew! The other girls ran to their houses to tell their families, and soon grownups stood around the tree that had appeared overnight. “Go get the well diggers!”
The well diggers had come to the village to begin their work, and when they were shown the tree they sniffed the air, put their ears to the ground, and looked at each other.
“Yes, we will begin digging here.” They found moisture in the earth after only an hour of digging. And the very next day, cool water began flowing into the bottom of the deep new well.
* * *
Ayesha lay—happy and tired—in bed the evening of the day water came back to the village and wanted to thank Bibi and her friends for finding the water. But there was something else she wanted to do, too. In the quiet part of the night she again walked under the moon, holding a fresh loaf in both hands, letting the breeze carry the delicious smell. And, before Ayesha had walked very far, a familiar voice from near her feet spoke.
“It is good to see you, Ayesha, my child.”
“I am glad to see you, Bibi. Thank you very much for finding the water for us.”
“Oh, glad to help. If you really want to thank me you could let me have a taste of that loaf.”
“Sure, you may have some, but only when you keep your promise.”
The rat rose up on her hind legs. “Whatever do you mean? Of course, I kept my promise, silly child, your village has a new well.”
“True, but you forgot your other promise. We have not gone to see the Ocean.”
Somersaulting and chittering, Bibi said, “Well, we’re wasting a beautiful cool night. Follow me.”
Bibi began hopping away. Her long skinny tail stuck straight up, the dark tuft at its tip like a flag in the air. After a little hop of her own, Ayesha followed, walking along the path leading to the end of the village and, beyond the horizon, to the great Ocean.
* * *
Was this a dream? All I know is that the next day Ayesha’s mother gathered up Ayesha’s djellaba to wash it in the village’s new water, and she felt dampness at its hem and a delicious tangy salty sea smell rose faintly from it. One tiny shell fell from the cloth. And Ayesha’s mother stared at the garment and shook her head, as if to wake herself.