Two Steel Buckets

      Two steel buckets swung from side to side. They balanced on a long branch Athiri had placed over her shoulders as she made her way down the mountainside. She was careful to not spill a single drop.

         “Back straight!” Grandpa Ori called from behind her.

         She stood tall, despite the beads of sweat now collecting on the tip of her nose. Her sheepskin jacket normally tucked snug around her body was tied at her waist, bare arms free and shining in the winter sun. These days the temperature rarely dropped below the need of a coat, but Grandpa Ori insisted she bring one all the same. Athiri stopped to readjust the buckets.

         “Come on sure-foot, you’re nearly home.”

Grandpa Ori had given her that name once he saw how well she could climb to the glacier fed river on the great mountain that shadowed their town. She had been five at the time and could only carry a single bucket. At eight she now climbed nearly as well as her grandpa. The two of them made the trek together every morning before Grandpa Ori went off to work in the mines and Athiri went home to take care of her siblings. Grandpa Ori was slim built and hunching with age but always managed to beat Athiri down the mountainside while carrying twice as many buckets.

         As they reached town, smoke sprouted from chimneys as dogs began to stir and howl at the rising sun. Athiri walked between the squat stone buildings thankful for the grass that now rose under her feet instead of rock. A butterfly swooped past her nose, and just as she decided to drop her buckets and chase after it, Grandpa Ori called back at her to quicken her pace.

         Athiri creaked open the door to her home and was overcome with relief that she could finally place the steel buckets down. Inside there was a fire brewing at the center of the room that smelt of smoke and boiling rice. She raised her hands high above her to stretch her back, but seconds later her younger brother collided into her tackling her to the ground. They laughed and rolled around with one another, his school uniform now covered in dirt. Normally their mother would have told them to stop playing as their noise would wake their younger sisters. But today their mother simply sat and stared at the steel buckets.

         “That’s it?” Athiri’s mother asked.

         “The river is drying up,” Grandpa Ori said.

         “How am I supposed to support a family of six with this?”

         “We will make it work,” he grunted.

         Troubled by her mother’s sullen state, Athiri grabbed her two buckets. “That’s not all, look here, I have some too.”

         Her mother smiled weakly, “Thank-you, Athiri.”

         That evening, Grandpa Ori explained the glacier was dying. Athiri now understood that no glacier meant no water in the rivers. Despite the forewarning she was not ready when the day finally came when they scaled the mountain to find only sun baked earth and swirling dust. They trekked higher to the mountain peak to find any trace of the river or glacier that still trickled with life, but it was gone.  

         “Let’s go home,” Grandpa Ori said. “There is nothing we can do.”

         Athiri nodded, not sure where the water was going to come from now that the glacier was gone.

         Two steel buckets swung from side to side. They balanced on a long branch Athiri had placed over her shoulders as she made her way down the mountainside. For the first time in her life they no longer held a single drop.

 

***

 

         As time passed the town wilted in desperate need of water. Each day the sun stole from them what little remained in mountain pools, and soon after the plants began to stain brown as they fought for the last of the droplets under the soil. While Athiri’s brother went to school and grew smarter, Athiri stayed home to look after her family and grew restless. She woke each morning to peak at the mountain hoping that one day the glacier would return.   

         The villagers sourced another river seven kilometers away, higher up a distant mountain where a small glacier remained. When Athiri traversed the foreign rocky terrain with her two steel buckets, she met many people from many towns who all whispered to Grandpa Ori that their rivers had dried up too.

         The first time Athiri made it back to the village before her grandpa she yelled into the morning air with such excitement it echoed through town. The strength in her legs grew each day as she sprouted upwards to the height of her mother. However, each day she made it back quicker Grandpa Ori made it back slower. Then one morning he told her that he was no longer able to make the journey to fetch the water.

         “But grandpa,” she began.

         “You know the way, sure-foot,” he interrupted. “If you tried I know you could carry just as many buckets as me. Your sister Takara is old enough now to help you.”

         Grandpa Ori took to painting the house. The decades of charcoal and smoke dimmed the white paint a dull, gloomy grey. He mixed limestone from the mine, bought two paint brushes, and hummed a tune as he worked. Athiri took to helping him when not caring for her sisters or fetching the water. 

Up down, up down. Dip. Up down, up down. Dip. 

         Two weeks later, Athiri made her way home from the distant river with four steel buckets. Despite the early hours of morning, she went to wake Grandpa Ori to show him how well she had done. Grandpa Ori didn’t move. Confused, she woke her mother and asked for her help. But still Grandpa Ori did not wake. Athiri’s mother held Athiri tight that morning, breaking her silence with a few quiet sobs.

 

***

 

         Her golden curls and square glasses reflected the evening sun into the eyes of hushed villagers as they watched her stroll through town. The woman had a nose too big for her round face that nearly poked the notepad she carried everywhere she went. She left footprints far larger than Athiri’s, who followed the newcomers' tracks across town.

         The women stopped at Athiri’s house on the third day. Despite being the tallest in her family Athiri had never felt so small standing beside her.

         “Hello,” the woman said with a soft smile and teeth white as snow. “My name is Charlie Windslow. I am a researcher studying your water crisis from Burnstein University.” Her eyes darted between Athiri and her mother who both sat on the front step of their house.  

         Athiri was not sure what a Burnstein University was and wondered if Charlie was here because her glacier had dried up too. Kili’s cries erupted from inside the house and Athiri rushed to calm her. She returned with Kili and placed Kili on her lap. 

         “I’m sorry,” Charlie Windslow said. “I didn’t know she was asleep.”

         “That’s alright,” Athiri’s mother said. “She is just hungry.”

         “How much rice does she get a day?” Charlie asked.

         “About half a cup,” Athiri’s mother said. “We don’t have enough water for more. Too expensive to buy in town.”

         “I see,” Charlie said scribbling in her notebook. “Do you mind if I asked you a few more questions?”

         “I suppose, if it can help bring our water back,” her voice trailed off.

         The questions Charlie asked soon lost Athiri’s interest. Athiri did not understand why Charlie wanted to know so many details about how many of them lived in the house, how many of them worked in the mine, and if they had gone to school. Those answers would not bring the glacier back. Athiri went inside and twirled her steel buckets letting Kili chase after them. Grandpa Ori’s half-filled paint cans rested in the corner like ghosts no one wanted to put to rest. 

         The door swung open.

         “Athiri, do you remember where the glacier was the last time you saw it?” Charlie asked.  

         She laughed at the question. “Of course I do, there is a trail leading up the mountain.”

         “Would you mind taking me there?”

         Athiri twirled her bucket one more time. She had not returned to the mountain since the day the river had dried.

 

***

        

         “Slow down there,” Charlie called from below. The winter breeze danced through her hair twisting it in every direction, and each new gust threatened to blow off her glasses. 

         “My grandpa called me sure-foot” Athiri called from above. Her sheepskin coat was tied once again around her waist and her legs ached in remembrance of the daily climb. A frown crept onto her lips with each bend in the path and soon she forgot all about Charlie and her notepad. How Athiri missed her river, her glacier, and her grandpa.

Athiri sat on the mountainside where the river had once slid down the slopes. Charlie took a few more minutes to catch her and exhaled a long sigh once she sat to rest. Athiri was not sure if the sigh was Charlie out of breath or because of the state of the river. Charlie pulled out her camera and began taking pictures.

         “Have you ever wanted to do something besides fetch water?” Charlie asked in between the clicks of his camera.

         “I’m sure-foot,” Athiri responded. “I am good at fetching water.”

         “Have you ever wanted to go to school?”

         “Girls don’t go to school,” Athiri said, laughing at the silly question. “Girls fetch water, and cook, and take care of their siblings.”  

         “I went to school,” Charlie said in a quiet voice. “You can too. Maybe one day you could even join me at Brunstein. Once we figure out how to get your glacier back.”

         Athiri stayed silent.

         Grandpa Ori had told her there was nothing anybody could do. 

         When Charlie was done taking pictures they continued together up the mountain until Athiri showed her the spot the glacier had once lived.

         “Incredible,” Charlie said without a smile. She reached into her bag and pulled out some pieces of paper. “Athiri, come have a look at these pictures.”

         On the papers were pictures that revealed a huge white blob in the center surrounded by black. The white blob shrunk smaller and smaller as Charlie flipped through the booklet of pictures.

         “How old were you when you first came here with your grandfather?” she asked.

         “Five.”

         Charlie flipped through the pages before stopping at one and pulled it out. “This was how big the glacier was then,” she said. She showed Athiri picture after picture until the white blob, which she now understood to be the glacier, had disappeared.

         “It’s the positive feedback loop of the albedo effect,” she said under her breath.

         “Albedo?”

         “Dark things,” Charlie explained, “like this rock all around us, absorb more heat than light things.”

         “Like a glacier,” Athiri said.

         “Yes,” she said with raised eyebrows. “So the more ice that melts, the more dark rock exposed, the more heat--”

         “And the more heat, the less glacier,” Athiri finished.

         “You got it. More black, more melting. More white, more ice.” Charlie took a few more pictures before they made the descent together down the mountainside.

         Charlie Windslow left three weeks later. She had talked to most of the town by then. Athiri did not want her to leave but Charlie said it was time to bring all this new information back to Brunstein University.

         Athiri kept replaying the moments she had spent with Charlie. She wanted to learn more about the glaciers and the rivers and the albedo. “More white, more ice,” Athiri whispered to herself over and over so she would not forget.

         An idea struck her.

         Grandpa Ori had been wrong.

         Athiri knew how to bring the glacier back.

 

***

        

         Two steel buckets swung side to side as Athiri made her way up the mountainside. She tried not to think about Grandpa Ori, but every so often she straightened her back in case he was watching her from above.

         “More white, more ice,” she repeated. 

         When she reached the spot the glaciers had once lived she placed the steel buckets down. The summer wind howled around her threatening to tip over her buckets. The wind wisped a few white specs into the air and sprinkled them across the rock like stars. Athiri reached into her pocket and pulled out one of Grandpa Ori’s paintbrushes. She dipped the brush into the inky white paint bucket.

         She swept one long stroke that beamed white in defiance against the dark rock.

         She smiled.

         Up down, up down. Dip. Up down, up down. Dip.  

         “More white, more ice.”

         Once the first steel paint bucket was empty Athiri moved to the next. 

         Athiri hurried back down the mountainside, her two steel buckets now empty, and returned to the village well before anyone was awake. She continued painting through the summer months, fitting in trips up the mountain before fetching water with her sister. Kili grew old enough to help them with the water too, so Athiri gave her Grandpa Ori’s old buckets and taught her how to balance them on a long wooden stick. Athiri’s brother brought her limestone every Sunday from the mine that he stacked neatly in the corner of the house beside grandpa Ori’s paint buckets. 

         In the months to come Athiri had painted an area so large it could be seen from the village. People began asking questions, wondering if the great glacier had returned. Athiri did her best to explain what Charlie Windslow had taught her about the albedo, but they did not want to understand.

         Athiri did not mind. She continued to trek up the mountain every morning. “More white, more ice,” she would say.

         Then one day it happened.

         The depths of winter surrounded her town and Athiri slipped on her sheepskin jacket early one morning. When she reached the vast mountaintop she had painted white, she fell to her knees. 

A thin, almost nonexistent, fluffy white layer coated the rock.

As she looked around in disbelief as her eyes filled with water. Athiri rose, and each hesitant step she took crunched under her feet. Athiri took longer strides until she danced upon the mountaintop. Her eyes sparkled and her smile stretched so wide Charlie Windslow at Burnstein University could have seen it.

         Two steel buckets swung from side to side. They balanced on a long branch Athiri had placed over her shoulders as she made her way down the mountainside. She was careful to not spill a single flake.

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