Note: I originally published this a couple of years ago when the Fukushima Daichii nuclear plant was crippled in a tsunami, subsequently poisoning the ground water and leading to domestic water shortages. Now in the news we hear of the contamination of the Elk River by a coal processing compound and the ensuing ban on the use of the domestic water supply, including drinking water. I just wanted to throw this out there again (because it’s newsy). I became fascinated with the choices this situation could force on ordinary people.
A Glass of Water
Atsuko heard the creaking of the porch screen and hurried out to greet her husband.
“What?” she asked. Her eyes bulged and glistened.
Hoshu limped through the door after removing his shoes. “There is no bottled water left at any of the stores. Where is Tokutaro?”
“He’s out back playing with his friends.”
A breeze blew in the open door. Atsuko rushed to close it. “The neighbors have said the same thing. No bottled water at all. What will we do? Maybe we can go to Kamakura and stay with my sister and her family?”
Hoshu looked down at his gnarled hands and sighed. “It will be the same thing down there sooner or later. It’s in the wind as well as the water. It goes everywhere.”
“The radio and the television both said the water in the tap was fine to drink. The levels had gone up and babies shouldn’t get any. But they said it would not be a problem for anyone else. It is not too high.” Atsuko twisted a dry rag in her hands.
Outside in the street, children yelled and Hoshu could hear a ball slapping against the side of the building: Tokutaro playing football with his friends.
What does she want me to say? Hoshu wondered. He’d been at work laying bricks all morning and had finished his last bottle of water before coming home. Atsuko had promptly sent him back out in search of more. Now he was parched and found it hard to speak without coughing.
Atsuko said, “Tokutaro has a bottle with him outside, but that is the last one.”
Hoshu looked at his wife and shrugged. “It’s tap water then. The man at the store said they won’t have bottled water at least for a week. We can’t go that long without water to drink. The neighbors are all in the same position. I don’t see we have much choice.”
“Tokutaro. He is only eight years old, Hoshu.”
“Do you think I don’t know the age of my son? That a few hours without water have damaged my brain?” Hoshu stood up and went over to the sink. He peered down the drain looking for any telltale sign of contamination. What was he supposed to see, a green glow from deep in the drainpipe?
“What are you doing over there?” Atsuko came across the room and joined him at the sink.
“Looks fine. Smells alright,” he said.
He grabbed a glass from the drying rack and held it under the tap. His hand did not shake at all, which surprised him.
He looked at Atsuko and took a deep breath, held it for a second, and then exhaled. Hoshu turned the cold-water handle, letting cool clear water spill freely onto the white porcelain of the sink.
Atsuko took two steps back and bit her lower lip. “Hoshu, no…”
He filled the glass, turned off the water and walked to the kitchen table. Hoshu placed the glass in the center of the table. They stared at the glass of water in silence. Hoshu imagined downing the water. What would happen, really?
Finally he broke the silence. “Sooner or later, we’ll have to drink.”
“But let’s wait.” Atsuko said. “Maybe one of the neighbors will have a relative who will bring some. Or we could go down to the store one more time. Can’t we wait until we’re sure there’s no other way?”
They stared at the glass of water while joyful shouts floated up from the street. They heard Tokutaro yell “Goal!”
I was driving around today and NPR was airing a story about the partial meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The story centered on the questionable safety of the Tokyo tap water.
The government has advised that infants not have any tap water. The question remained if older kids and adults could drink with impunity. Government pronouncements indicated that radiation levels, while elevated above baseline, were not such that a health hazard was likely.
Bottled water is getting harder to find…
January 14th, 2014 at 10:21 am
Love this one, Bob! Famous last words: “The government says it’s ok.” Great bit of flash fiction that stirs a primal fear and reflects the razor’s edge we walk every day…trust what’s ‘provided’ us? Or not…
January 14th, 2014 at 2:45 pm
I’m trying not to write a horror story about this but it’s hard not to when it so totally begs for it. Hi Annie! Please encourage me to write that horror story…
January 14th, 2014 at 2:24 pm
Have to love it when the officials tell civilians the water is now safe to drink. When asked if they would drink a glass of water in front of the cameras they reply, “I’ll be the first to take a drink *when* it is safe.” I wonder if they hear what they are saying?
January 14th, 2014 at 2:44 pm
Right? I saw that…and it just underscores how vulnerable we are with all our ‘systems’. Sure, providing water to a city of tens of thousands is a fantastic achievement….until it isn’t. Thanks for commenting SuzanneG! Happy New Year!
January 17th, 2014 at 12:44 am
In school I studied the Chernobyl disaster as an example of a situation that produced a peculiar kind of PTSD. People close enough to the plant to be harmed by the radiation didn’t learn about the incident until quite a while after, apparently. They spent a while – I can’t remember exactly how long, but I think we’re talking days or weeks – eating produce grown in that soil, drinking local water, and not knowing that they were being exposed.
Afterward, many developed symptoms of radiation poisoning. In many of those cases, the symptoms were proven to be caused by stress rather than radiation. The idea that they’d innocently exposed themselves to harm was equally as destructive as the radiation itself.
I’d say your story was spot-on.
January 17th, 2014 at 9:23 am
Interesting, Elizabeth. So, people who found out AFTER the fact, that they had been exposed, developed symptoms that were later found to be related to this knowledge and NOT the physical contaminmation. Oh boy: is there a story there or what?
Regardless, I am intensely interested in how our systems, which are held up as ‘the progress of man’ by certain segments, are also the agents of sickness and death. Thanks for reading and commenting Elizabeth. I was over at your blog last week and now you’ve got me doing Holly Lisle’s Flash Fiction Boot Camp…