Everything in the village was brown. The small, squat huts were brown. The narrow dirt road was brown. The marketplace was crowded and filthy and brown. The grass and fields, which always seemed withered and tired, were brown. And most of all, day after day, the twisting, murky river was brown.
Keisha trudged along the path through the village one morning on her way to get water, like she did most mornings. Despite the sweltering summer heat, the older villagers greeted each other cheerfully and young children skipped and played. Among them was Keisha’s little sister, Afia, who was only four. Glancing briefly back over her shoulder, Keisha spotted Afia racing and laughing with a group of other children. Mini whirlwinds of dust swirled up around their small bodies, and they paused frequently to cough dry, hacking coughs.
Another group of young children waved to Keisha, and she waved back. But the kids the same age as Keisha teased, just like they did every day. “Are you still looking for magic stones?” they taunted, and hooted with laughter.
Some days Keisha retaliated, saying, “You have to go for water every day too. You know that it’s as brown as the road. You’ll be jealous if I do find a magic stone.” Today though, Keisha just ignored them and marched on, gripping the handle of the large wooden bucket.
Several older kids who were standing nearby, taking a rare rest from their daily stifling hot farm work, smiled at her. “You’re only twelve, Keisha—stop trying to save the world by yourself!” They chuckled.
Keisha disregarded them as well.
At the center of town, Keisha passed the marketplace. It was dusty and dim, but everyone laughed loudly as they bartered for a good deal. “I’m not payin’ that much for your scrawny vegetables!” one woman declared over the roar of the crowd.
At the edge of the marketplace, under the shade of a lone tree, stood the old blind man that everyone called Grandfather, though only out of respect—no one knew of anyone that he was related to. As always, Grandfather knew when Keisha was coming. “Good day, young one!” he greeted her. “Don’t forget to look for a magic stone today.”
“I won’t, Grandfather,” Keisha assured him halfheartedly. It was Grandfather who had first told her about the magic stones. They were blue, he had told her. A deep, beautiful blue like the ocean. Keisha had never seen the ocean and knew no one who had, but she could imagine an intense, powerful blue that she was sure must be the hue of the ocean.
The stones, Grandfather had told her, were for wishing on. If you held one and wished, the next day your wish would come true. He was considered only a skillful storyteller by the rest of the village, but Keisha held his stories as fact.
Keisha hummed a quiet, wordless tune as she walked past the end of the village and along rows and rows of fields. Her gaze darted around, constantly searching for the dark blue stones, but her heart was heavier than a full sack of rocks gathered from the fields. There never were any wishing stones, and she suddenly felt certain that there never would be.
Keisha wondered if everyone else was right. She realized that they probably were and that Grandfather was only a storyteller. Anger as hot as boiling water flared up inside her, and she realized how childish the hopes were that she had clung to. Keisha quickened her pace, her tough, bare feet hitting the hard ground with slaps like an angry drumbeat.
Many steps later, Keisha reached the twisting river. She straightened her faded, tattered dress and bent to fill the huge bucket with the murky brown water; water that her family would drink. The river—which was more of a creek or stream—was called Crystal River. But the water was never crystal clear, or anywhere near it. Maybe it had been pure at one time, but if it had, no one could remember. Now clean water was wishful thinking. The shallow river seemed to be narrower every day too, and it was scarcely deep enough for Keisha to submerge her entire bucket under the muddy, sun-warmed water.
Standing up, Keisha lugged the backbreaking bucket up the short, steep bank and set it down. She sat, since there was no one nearby to scold her for being lazy. The warm sun blazed down on her, scorching and burning. Keisha ran her fingers through her black braided hair and held it up off her sweaty neck, staring miserably at the river.
There were many small stones along the banks of the river, and another sudden wave of fierce anger washed over her. Keisha bit her lip against the strong feeling of unjustness, willing her emotions not to spill over into hot tears. She grabbed a handful of small stones, digging all the way into the muck of the riverbank, and flung them far down the river.
The stones were in the air for only a brief second as they soared above the stream and then dived into it, but it was long enough. Long enough for Keisha to see that one of them was blue.
She scrambled after it, but the stone had already plunged to the muddy bottom of the river. Keisha searched desperately, but she knew deep inside her that it was futile. She had let Grandfather down. She had stopped looking; stopped hoping. And now her chance was gone.
“Keisha! What on earth is taking you so long?” Keisha turned and glared at her older brother. She leaped out of the river, grabbed the burdensome water bucket, and flew past him down the path, not noticing the weight.
* * *
That night, lying on a thin blanket in the corner of her family’s traditional mud-brick hut, Keisha listened to the lions roar. They were far away, in the thick savannahs, but their powerful roars echoed all the way to Keisha’s village. Usually they sounded courageous and bold to Keisha, and she longed to be more like them. But that night they sounded mournful. Hopeless.
Keisha soundlessly cried herself to sleep.
* * *
The next morning, Keisha was up while the sky was still a smoky gray, like she was every morning. She ate their family’s standard porridge-like breakfast. After that she helped her mother tidy up their home. Then she went out to work in her family’s fields.
Keisha worked numbly, not noticing the ruthlessly blazing sun. She didn’t notice her aching back and stiff hands. She worked silently and diligently.
In the middle of the morning, one of Keisha’s sisters, Nyala, who was younger than her by one year, left because it was her turn to fetch water. Keisha hardly noticed.
“Good work,” Keisha’s father told her once. He was a quiet man and rarely gave compliments. Today Keisha didn’t care. She continued only to labor unfeelingly, as if she were in a dream, her thin hands working automatically.
“Come look! Come look!” All at once, Nyala came tearing through the village. Her bucket was still empty. “Come to the river! The water’s clear!”
Keisha raced after her sister. The long distance to the river seemed only a few short strides.
Amazingly, her sister was right. The water splashed gently and glittered like crystals, cutting through the dusty land. Keisha’s harsh anger as she had thrown the blue stone had worked as a wish; a bitter, powerful wish of hope and desperation.
Taking the bucket from her sister, Keisha knelt and filled it. The clear water flowed in freely. She lifted the bucket and turned around. Nearly the entire village was standing behind her, with joyful smiles. Near the back stood Grandfather, with a smile that was the biggest of all.
Keisha looked towards the cheerful crowd of villagers and back at the dreary, brown village. She gazed up at the endless blue sky and bright African sun. She watched the sparkling river, as clear as a million crystals. And she smiled too.