Village of Ardakmoktan
by Nicole Derr
My friend was an interesting fellow. He warmed and disarmed everyone with his brown hair cropped short, nicely tapered torso, chiseled face. Subconsciously, we liked to keep Graham around because he looked so pleasant. He held your eyes with his translucent greens.
For the sake of this account, it would be easier to classify Graham as shallow and describe his personality as something vapid, plastic. The problem is, however, that we never got him. We never understood what his personality was exactly. When recounted, his dialogue seemed cast in a proverbial green light, smacking of the unreal.
“I joined because there’s no better way to get in shape,” Graham told me the first time we met. He smiled a sincere smile, but what does a sincere smile have to do with a statement like that? He joined us in the spring. A short man towed his monstrous valise, which we later learned contained carefully selected, expensive foods: real rarities. An even shorter man, balding and bespectacled, bore the even larger valise containing clothing and other so-called essentials. I often wondered how he circumvented customs, for surely he must have escaped them somehow. I heard bribery no longer works—I also know from experience.
Ardakmoktan at that time was staggering under a particularly brutal drought forcing local authorities to ration off the water severely. Slashed cactus drained of fluid, decapitated and dumb, marred the horizon. Our mineral water was flown in from America in large barrels. Deliverymen unloaded the barrels from their trucks, while security guards in tightly laced boots surrounded them, keeping the desperate locals (Moktas) with chapped lips from attaching themselves to the barrels and draining them like leeches. Sometimes the occasional Mokta succeeded in penetrating the ominous security circle, throwing himself on a barrel, and stabbing it open with a pocketknife. After sating himself with water for the first time in many months, an anonymous guard would then shoot him in the back, relieving him of all fluids forever.
We watched our barrels of water from the trees. We found it entertaining when the locals were shot. Too hot to go around shooting people ourselves. Our base was secluded, secure, and lush. The government employed a botanist to maintain the foliage. Almost all of our free moments were spent languidly hanging from these trees, wiping our brows with thick leaves, sweating life and time through our large pores. “This base is a vacuum,” Graham once quietly griped. He raked his tanned fingers through his hair and flashed a disarming smile. “No, just kidding. I like the purging qualities of this place,” he added vaguely.
Because the trees would not thrive naturally in the climate of Ardakmoktan, almost half of our mineral water was used to water them. Cactus, we were told, is bad for the morale: too desolate. The sad cactus waved to us from afar with spiky mittens.
So, where was Ardakmoktan in relation to the rest of the world, you wonder? You don’t know geography very well, do you? Probably not. Unfortunately, our schools value geography very little. No more maps to color in with thick crayon. Imagine Ardakmoktan as a blank slate. I still imagine it as a blank slate.
Graham bunked with me. Every morning I watched him swiftly drop from his bed like an Olympic diver, precise and slick. He hung the requisite picture of a buxom girlfriend on his wall. I never saw him look at the picture and he certainly never told me her name. For all I know, her picture was ripped from a magazine and framed. For all I know.
He frequently plied us with gourmet foods from his seemingly bottomless valise. “Here...try this.... and this,” he would say, sometimes putting morsels directly into our mouths without awaiting a reply. “Try this too.” And we did. (Never bite the hand, you know.)
Mentally I noted his emaciated face, realizing that he rarely ate his foods, although he technically put plenty of food in his mouth—like a sandwich, for instance—but slowly, discreetly reeled it back out so he only masticated and swallowed a very minute portion. I found it strange, but said nothing. Too hot.
One afternoon my favorite security guard stood legs akimbo in his too-tight uniform. His mustache spanned ear to ear, underlined by thick wet lips. He smiled goofily while watching the barrels, rifle resting on a padded shoulder. A local, tall and lean, darted by him with the stealthy movements reserved for virile youth. The boy’s loose blue shirt rippled in the dry, hot wind. We watched him from the trees, reclining on branches thicker than both of my muscular legs combined. He struck at the right time, before the barrels had been unloaded from the trucks, but after the truck had been backed up against the ramp; in short, everything was just right.
The youth had no knife. He had no desire to affix his face to the barrel and drain it until the moment he himself was drained. Instead, he leaped onto the truck bed and tried to roll one of the barrels onto the ramp. I propped myself up on my branch in surprise. He was still alive and he wanted the entire barrel, our barrel of water. Usually the Moktas reached such a fever-pitched level of dehydration that they only wanted as much water as they could consume immediately. To steal an entire barrel! The guards rested the rifles on their shoulder and aimed. At least eight men had their weapons carefully pointed at the boy’s head, simultaneously pulling the trigger. I yawned. The heat made me drowsy; the suspense made me drowsier. I wanted an end to this and I wanted my water. The foie gras and gull wine left me parched. I hated the idea of losing water, of helplessly watching it seep into the ground. I moved the leaf that had drooped in front of my face.
“I can’t believe he’s trying to take the entire barrel. What disgusting greed,” I told my friend Graham. I turned to receive Graham’s lavished support but he was no longer in the neighboring tree.
The barrel confidently traveled down the gentle ramp, increasing in momentum. Locals spontaneously surfaced to help the boy control the now-rampaging barrel.
“Why aren’t they stopping them?” my throat cried out in thirst. The men around me rested silently on their branches. “Graham?” I couldn’t see him anywhere.
The guards dropped their useless rifles and ran through the sweltering heat after the runaway barrel, giving more spontaneously generated locals the opportunity to snatch the abandoned weapons. Outraged, I rested my head against the tree trunk and yawned. In such heat, yawns are uncontrollable. The heat, the yawning left a pasty taste in my mouth. I yawned again. Through crinkled eyelids, I glimpsed Graham navigating the wobbling barrel with his strong, agile arms, running at full speed with the Moktas.
I yawned in disbelief and shock. The heat was an impasse for the guards, who returned to the truck to unload the unscathed barrels. They slunk onto the truck bed with rounded, defeated shoulders. I watched Graham’s silhouette recede into the distance surrounded by other silhouettes, all moving in joyful, radiant complicity.
The guards were severely reprimanded for not immediately apprehending Graham. They defensively pleaded sabotage (how effortlessly they were beguiled!). We got in trouble too for not bothering to drop from our respective trees and help. I didn’t care. It was too hot. Later I returned to Graham’s tree and found his small, brown satchel teeming with rifle bullets (not gourmet treats like I’d hoped). I left the heavy little satchel in the tree instead of turning it in to the investigating officer. It was simply too hot to slide down the tree with a bag full of bullets, walk across the entire base, and explain the whole situation without incriminating myself. It was simply too hot. I camouflaged the bag under leaves nourished with mineral water, leaves thickened by tiny chrysalides sheltering a delicate growth otherwise out of place in such a supposedly depraved environment.
About the author:
Nicole lives and writes in Macungie, Pennsylvania, because escape is difficult. She practices by running several miles a week as fast as she can, arms flailing.