I am an extremely happy camper. "Blood and Water" received two awards in the Red Eyed Edward Contest: Third Place Judges' Choice, and The Secret Keeper's Choice. I can't tell you how thrilled I am. I barely slept because I spent last night on the moon. By the way, it's been fun watching you guys review me. It's been soooo hard not to let anything slip.
Much thanks to the judges, krgcrr (Secret Keeper) and to yellowglue for the prize of two banners.
You can look forward to a new chapter of MH soon. After that, I'll be working on Dove.
Much thanks to ladylibre (who also won an award for her story) for pre-reading this story.
This story would not have been authentic without my Cultural Advisor, Jannat Ferdous. Thank you, Jannat.
Disclaimer: The author does not own any publicly recognizable entities herein. No copyright infringement is intended.
^ ,_._, ^
Blood and Water
June 20th, 2011:
Cheers erupted as Edward Masen turned on a tap at the side of the road. Chilly, fresh water from the new pipe his team had installed splattered on the ground. Multiple male hands patted him on the back as he wiped sweat and grime from his tanned brow. People stood so close to him that it was a miracle they all didn't go down in the mud. Edward grinned broadly in triumph, defying the local custom, even though the water would have to undergo vigorous testing before it could be deemed safe for drinking.
Although nearly everyone in Bangladesh had access to improved water delivery systems (often funded by community and charity groups), it was discovered in 1993 that much of the groundwater was naturally contaminated with arsenic. Surface water was polluted. By 2010, only 56% of the population had access to adequate sanitation facilities but 72% had clean drinking water. The country's urban areas were thriving, with fair wages and sustained high economic growth. Rural areas –with few job prospects besides rice farming— remained impoverished. So, Edward was among those aid workers bringing safe water, community-led total sanitation, urbanization, education and job training to the locals.
A wealthy woman, veiled in a ruby red sari encrusted with glistening gold and gemstones, watched from the shadows. He'd seen her before. She was memorable in this shanty town, where so many were destitute. To his surprise, no one asked her for alms but many greeted her with deference. She had to be someone very important.
Edward took five test tubes out of his kit and scooped up water, then carefully dripped in the gold nanoparticle solution. If arsenic was present in the water, the solution would turn from black to orange. The brighter the color of orange, the higher the concentration of arsenic.
The onlookers waited with bated breath while the test developed.
Purple-black. Less than one part per billion. Perfect.
"It's good!" Edward yelled, punching the air. Spontaneous dancing broke out and small children ran home to tell their mothers the news. The populace would be able to collect water directly instead of trekking more than ten miles a day to fill their containers.
He caught the veiled woman's attention; she had the beautiful, almost-red brown eyes that many of the locals possessed. She raised her hands toward him and clapped as though proud of him, emptied her purse (to the delight of shrieking, scrambling children) and walked swiftly away.
"Allah be praised!" Syed, Edward's most educated sewerage student, clapped his hands together and tried not to smile, too. "I must go home and tell my family. Khoda hafez, Shikkhok!"
"I am blessed," Edward said in Bangla. He loved his job. The place, the people… the best food he'd ever tasted and heat that had, after six months, settled into his restless bones.
Thanks to the Esme Cullen Memorial Fund, thousands of the poorest children in the world had access to safe drinking water. Despite the massive advancement of Bangladesh as a developing nation since the year 2000, slums remained, half of the huge population was functionally illiterate, and 14% of rural children still suffered from severe malnutrition. Many children suffered from stunted growth.
Edward stretched, turning his face up to blistering sun. He needed to get to his room before midday to have a wash. If he could get home in time, he would indulge himself with a rare, leisurely nap before meeting with his apprentices. He could call it a birthday treat. With a rumble of satisfaction, he opened his testing kit and withdrew large sample bottles.
"Shikkhok!" His only female student shouldered her way to the front of the gathered spectators, the fake coins edging her blue sari clinking as she moved. "Jonab Mohammed says an American is here to see you."
Edward pressed his hands together as though in prayer. "Namashkar, Hasina. Please tell Jonab Mohammed that I'll be there as soon as I drop off these samples." The lab was on his way, anyhow.
Hasina bobbed her head and ran back the way she had come. Syed gazed after her. Edward hid a smile as he capped the water samples and placed them in the kit. One of his favorite things about the Rangpur region was that the various religions lived together in harmony. Syed was Muslim and Hasina was Hindu. That wasn't likely to stop them from making a happy match.
Edward marched through crowded streets, two heads taller than the general population, and admired the lush green gardens of the park. He resisted stopping to wet his head in the fountain. The last thing he needed was to expose himself to any more dangerous chemicals. At least, with the amount of sweat he contributed to the environment, some of the toxins would leech out of his pores. He didn't need to contract cancer.
The administrative building, thick-walled and ancient, welcomed him with its hushed coolness. He availed himself of one of the staff washrooms, splashing water onto his parched skin. His green eyes catalogued small changes obtained from life in a sun-drenched clime. Fine laugh lines had etched themselves into him, hopefully lending an air of good character.
He wiped his hands on a towel and hurried to see who might be awaiting him.
The heavy carved door to the professor's office opened silently on its hinges. Inside, the oppressive stillness of the air was disturbed by electric fans.
"Jonab Mohammed?" Edward called.
"Ah, Edward!" the cheerful old man sang as he tottered to his feet and offered his hand. "I hear congratulations are in order. Why did you not tell us of your birthday? Are we not your friends?"
Edward shifted his weight from foot to foot, realizing he had inadvertently insulted his boss. He struggled to find a suitably vague answer. Directness was viewed as gauche. "I-I don't like –James?"
The blond man frowned and growled theatrically. "You don't like me, hey, old man? What deplorable manners you have! That'll teach me to come a hundred miles in this godforsaken heat."
Laughing, Edward embraced his friend and shook his hand warmly. "I had no idea you were coming! What—"
James lifted a shoulder. "Dr. Volturi begged me."
"Oh." Edward stopped short of rolling his eyes. "I'm not going back to Aro." James knew that Edward had exposed Volturi Water for faking water quality results in an impoverished rural community where only one percent of the population had taps in their houses. Falsified readings meant widespread death. It was as good as mass murder in Edward's book.
"I know, I know. But he's not about to give up."
"I can't fulfill my dreams there, James."
Jonab Mohammed nodded solemnly. "You have picked a fine friend in Edward, Dr. Hunter. He wishes to eradicate poverty in and around Rangpur."
James raised a brow. "I can't argue with that goal. Hey, I thought we could go out for some grub. My treat. You don't turn 34 every day."
"We can go to the hotel. Their food's good, right?"
"Yes, it's excellent. I'm free at seven. I teach from four to six today."
"Teaching the young men how to lay pipes?"
Edward's chest puffed up. "I have a girl now, too."
"A girl." James raised a brow. "The Lady Plumber of Rangpur. Has a ring to it."
"Indeed it does."
"Equal opportunity for girls is essential to our community," Jonab Mohammed explained unnecessarily.
"Okay." James nodded to Edward. "I'm going to have a lie down. If you give me your address, I'll meet you at seven."
"Sounds good." Edward recited his address and James made a note of it. "See you then."
Edward went home, had a quick wash in the chipped basin and napped for a couple of hours. He went to the local high school with his box of materials and tools, and ducked his head when the 20 students shouted, "Happy birthday!" He spent the two hour session explaining what could go wrong in an installation. Various metals could interact with each other, for instance, causing rust and leaks.
At the end of the class, Hasina presented a large tray full of sweet, milk-based treats for everyone to enjoy. Naturally, she did not eat with the men. Edward ate a couple of cham cham – an oval, brownish treat made of flour, cream, saffron, lemon juice and garnished with coconut— but he was mindful of his dinner plans with James. The hotel restaurant served a traditional fish, lentil and rice dish that was drool-worthy. However, Edward loved sweets. He snuck a couple of extra cham cham into his pocket, wrapped up in a tissue. They'd make a lovely bedtime snack.
James treated Edward to his favorite meal. As he was staying at the hotel, he took his leave of Edward there, but not before presenting him with a rectangular box. A couple of people looked at him warily, since he passed it negligently to Edward using only one hand.
"What's this?" Edward asked. "You didn't have to get me anything."
"It's a special treat." James looked a bit nervous. "Don't open it here."
Thanking his friend, Edward went home. Alone in his room, he opened the box. Inside it, nestled in some straw, was a bottle of American beer.
"Holy cow, James," Edward said to himself. "How in the hell did you get a bottle of Sam Adams in a country where almost all of the population is against drink?" Edward hadn't had any alcohol in nearly two years. It just wasn't available unless you were a member of the decadent rich.
His mouth watered. He wedged the neck of the bottle against the top of his desk and smacked his hand down on the cap, which popped off and clattered to the floor.
Wispy tendrils of vapor issued from the mouth of the dark brown bottle.
"Happy birthday and thank you, James." Edward toasted his absent friend with the bottle and tipped the beer down his throat. Although it wasn't very cold, it sure did hit the spot. He sipped at it slowly in order to make it last as long as possible. He didn't plan on leaving Rangpur any time soon so it would be a long time until he could drink one again.
His mind wandered. He remembered meeting his benefactor, Carlisle Cullen, for the first time. The young widower had recounted his hopes for his wife's pet project to Edward, who listened with rapt attention and promptly signed on to bring clean water and sanitation to the place she had loved. Poor Mrs. Cullen had succumbed to malaria in the mission field, five years before. Her husband financed charitable works to keep her torch alight.
Edward began to feel strange. His vision swam. Imagine! He couldn't even handle one beer on a full stomach. It had to be the humidity. Sweat trickled into his eyes. Even inside, it had to be 110 degrees. He wondered if they were going to get any monsoons. Then again, those caused floods and they didn't need any of those.
Someone rapped tentatively on the door. Edward didn't want to answer it drunk. He decided to pretend he wasn't home.
"Open up, it's me!" James whisper-shouted.
Edward got to his feet. He took a couple of steps and stumbled. Holding out his hands to balance himself, he walked carefully to the door. Two locks and three doorknobs and twelve doors spun before his eyes. He fumbled, managed to find the lock, and turned it.
"Something's wrong," Edward said. James caught him as he fell.
^ ,_._, ^
His tongue was thick and dry. He could hear himself breathing. Jolting wide awake, he panicked as frigid water splashed. He opened his eyes but everything was blurry. No matter what he did, he couldn't clear his vision. He stuck out his hands and discovered he was lying in a chipped, claw foot tub full of water and ice. He wasn't shivering. Why wasn't he shivering? Shit! His body temperature was too low!
Edward sat up. Wait. He didn't have a tub. It was Bangladesh and he lived in a rented room in a stinking, overcrowded city with lovable people and no running water.
How had he come to be in this room? Grasping the edges of the tub, he pulled himself to his feet, slid on its slimy surface, caught himself and reeled dizzily. His head was killing him. In fact, he hurt everywhere.
He managed to get upright. He was naked. "What the fuck?" He put his hands out and stepped around the room. There was nothing in it except the tub. No windows. A locked door. "God help me," he moaned. "What is going on? James? James!"
He put his hands on his hips and noticed the stitches. He counted them with a strange sense of detachment. They were unevenly spaced and lumpy. There were 30 of them, spaced out on his lower back. Beneath them, a flesh wound.
"Oh, God." His body stiffened. "Oh, God, no!"
He ran blindly around the room, feeling for the door, and screaming for help. Cursing James and pleading for mercy. Nobody came. He shouted and banged until he had no strength left. Then he scuttled into a corner, tucked his head under his arms, on his knees, and shook.
^ ,_._, ^
Time passed. He got thirsty. There was no tap. The only water was in the tub so he scooped some into his hand and drank it. He still couldn't see properly.
"God, get me out of this and I promise I'll never touch a drop of alcohol again."
When his bladder got full, he became self-conscious. As far as he could tell, there wasn't even a bucket in the room and he wasn't about to pollute his only source of water. He took a piss in the corner farthest from the one he preferred for his refuge. He curled up there and slept.
He awoke when the lock turned in the door and it burst open. A person appeared as a shapeless black outline. He pressed himself back against the wall and held his breath, his heart pounding in his ears.
The black outline rustled and fell, leaving behind a shape with a mass of orange on top. Red hair.
"Oh, damn." To his shock, his visitor was an American woman.
"Please," he whispered, shaking all over. "Please help me."
"Oh, sweetie." She crossed the room, the heels of her boots clacking, and kneeled down, cupping his face in her hand. "It's too bad you're awake. I was hoping you'd be out longer."
"Take this pill and don't bite my fingers."
"W-what is it?" He blinked, desperate to see.
"You want the pill, my sweet."
Edward turned his head from side to side, preventing the woman from putting it in his mouth. He grasped her legs and tried to knock her to the floor. When he continued to fight, she kicked him. As soon as he opened his mouth to yell, she tossed in the pill. Gagging, he hugged himself and spit it out.
"You're going to be sorry," she said as the door opened again. Two large silhouettes hovered over him.
"Hold him down," one man instructed the others. Something sharp touched his belly and Edward screamed.
^ ,_._, ^
He woke up in the dark in the tub full of ice.
"Oh, God, oh, God, oh, God I don't want to die. Please. Please please please please please."
He put his arm out of the tub and rolled out of it onto the floor. Hyperventilating, he patted his stomach and found a fresh wound. His useless eyes strained in the darkness while he attempted to quiet his breathing and listen. No traffic in a street. No sounds of human life at all. Perhaps he wasn't even in Rangpur anymore. Nobody but his captors knew where he was. His friends only knew he'd expressed no plans to leave Rangpur. But James could have concocted a cover story. He was obviously a master liar, damn him! He'd say Edward decided to return to his job at Volturi Water. That he was too embarrassed to give the Rangpur Water Treatment Committee or the Cullen Foundation any notice or explanation. They might mourn Edward's lack of sincerity but they didn't know him well enough to question it.
Edward was easily erased.
He wasn't going to give up, even if they had taken both his kidneys and his liver. He wasn't about to die without a fight.
^ ,_._, ^
There was nothing to eat. He fantasized about the gooey desserts Hasina had made him for his birthday. About the fish and rice dinner he'd eaten with the treacherous James. James the betrayer. He had loved the guy! He'd made the two years at Volturi bearable.
Edward rested against the wall, forearms on his knees. "God, please don't let me die here. I've seen malnutrition and I know I can go a long time without food." He crawled to the tub and drank some water. It tasted weird but he couldn't find any debris in it. He wondered if the same water had been in it since he'd arrived. He was probably poisoning himself with his own germs.
Preferable to being harvested to death.
How many days had passed? He had no way of making a mark that he could feel in order to keep track. Once, he thought he heard someone murmur, "Hello?" and he shouted for help. Nobody came. He was on his own.
^ ,_._, ^
Dark. Sleep. Light. Drink. Piss. Sleep. Pray. Daydream. Wait. Dark.
He lost track of everything.
^ ,_._, ^
He kept his eyes shut.
"Beloved, I am coming for you. Don't give up."
^ ,_._, ^
He hugged himself in the darkness. Why were they keeping him alive? They weren't feeding him. Were they going to let him starve to death? Should he just stop drinking? In a couple of days, there would be no more pain.
He had to have been there for at least a couple of weeks, because despite the horrific conditions, his stitches were healing. Maybe he could pick one off every day and it would help him keep track of time.
^ ,_._, ^
"Beloved, do not give up."
He licked cracked lips. "Are you real?"
He received no answer.
^ ,_._, ^
It was the most wonderful dream. He was dancing with the woman in the red sari in a production worthy of Bollywood. The tinkling of the tiny golden bells around her wrists and ankles mingled with their laughter.
"Shikkhok," Hasina smiled proudly, contrary to custom, and offered them a large golden tray of sweets. "I have brought you and your bride treats. Your favorite cham cham, all that you can eat! Keep your strength so that you may sire many fine children!"
"Thank you, Hasina." He picked up a coconut-coated morsel, his mouth watering, and put it in his mouth. But there was no flavor.
He awoke with a start, felt the rough wooden floor beneath his bony shoulder and hip, and wept without tears.
^ ,_._, ^
He took the beautiful woman to a round bed dripping with silks, perfumed with spices, unwound the luxurious sari, and filled his hands with her voluptuousness. They loved for a time as vast as the delta and then he basked in the heat of her embrace. He tucked his face into her neck and sighed. She combed her fingers through his hair.
"Beloved, a thousand years have I waited for you."
He squeezed his eyes shut. "But why would you even notice me? You're an important lady and I'm no one. Nobody's even missed me in the time I've been gone."
"I noticed you immediately, as have many. I have watched you many times."
"Because you are good. Namaste. You love my people. You help them and they call you blessed."
"I am blessed."
Edward opened his eyes to offer his bride his adoration. She vanished.
"No! God, please, no!" He didn't care if he was mad. He didn't care if he died! All he wanted was his angel. "Please?" He didn't care if he ever got to eat again, if he could just have her forever.
^ ,_._, ^
Edward forced himself onto all fours and crawled to the tub. He drank. The water tasted really bad. If his captors didn't come for him soon, he wouldn't drink any more of it. Maybe then he could be with his angel.
"My name is Edward Masen. My birthday was on June 20th and I'm … thirty four. I like … I like… what do I like? Indie rock bands. Teaching the kids. Helping. I'm good at helping. I'm not dead and somebody…" His eyes burned. "Somebody loves me. Lots of people, actually. I cannot be erased."
^ ,_._, ^
A key snicked quietly in the lock and the door opened silently. His jailors were never quiet. He opened his dull eyes.
"Are you here to finish me off?" he rasped, half-terrified and half-hoping. A person padded noiselessly across the floor and sank down beside him with a swishing of skirts scented of luxury.
"I'm here to rescue you, unless you'd prefer to die." Her accent was Bangla.
Edward sat up with a cry and reached out blindly in front of himself. "Are you my angel?"
"My people say so."
He brushed his fingers across hair, moved them gently back and stroked long, lustrous softness. "Who are you?"
"They call me Bel Bhavani, which in their tongue means The Sacred Wood that Lives Forever. And you are Edward Masen."
Edward ran his fingers down her arms, every atom in his body desperate to be held. She felt warm and soft and her flesh yielded under his hands. He couldn't remember the last time he'd touched a woman. "How did you find me?"
"My servant Mahmoud Mohammed was worried about you. He did not trust that James. So he brought me a blood offering, explained his concerns and gave me one of your shirts. I followed your scent until I found you."
Bel enclosed him in her arms and directed him to rest his face in the crook of her neck. She didn't seem much warmer than he. Still, he sighed, happy for the first time in…
"What day is it? How long have I been here?"
"What day did you go missing?"
"My birthday, June twentieth."
"Oh, Beloved. I didn't realize I'd been seeking you so long. How did you survive?"
"I don't know. I don't know how I'm going to survive this. I just… I had dreams. Things to do. I don't want to die."
"You have done much good for my people. And you need not die."
"They took my kidneys. And my liver! And I can't see! I can touch my eyes but they hurt."
"They took your corneas."
The truth gutted him. "How am I supposed to live without a liver and kidneys? If I drink anything but water it's going to kill me in no time. And I'll be blind for the rest of my life, won't I? Even if they should find a donor for me, I'm emaciated and weak. I'd never survive a transplant."
Bel shushed him and rocked him while he cried. Eventually, he calmed. Perhaps he was going to die and she would stay with him this time. He reached up and twisted a strand of her dark hair around his finger.
"You smell like paradise," he said, loving her just for existing.
"Will you promise me… not to leave me here alive?"
"Oh, Beloved. I cannot part with you."
"Good. Can you get me out? I want to feel the sun before I die."
"Beloved, if you will have me, all will be well and you will not die. But if you wish to stay with me forever, I ask only one thing."
"Anything you wish!"
"We must catch these humans so they cannot continue to do to our people the evil things they have done to you. And me."
"Yes. Those of their ilk did atrocious things to me, many years ago."
"And you're still alive?" It almost hurt to hope.
"Not exactly." She took his hand and pressed it to her chest. "I am vampire."
^ ,_._, ^
Her venom coursed through his veins, painful, invigorating, and singing with triumph. After an interminable time, he opened perfect eyes, saw her –young, brown skinned and red-eyed— and fell in love. She wore a red sari beaded with gold and precious gems. Bangles circled her wrists and small bells dripped around her ankles. He rose from the filthy floor –craven, starving for life— and kissed her. She stroked his face.
"Beloved, soon your tormentors shall return, and you shall have vengeance."
"You won't leave me, will you?"
"I will never leave you again."
^ ,_._, ^
He lay on the dirty floor, eyes open and still. The door crashed open and the woman who had tortured him came in, barking orders at two men. She took off the hood of her blue burka and kneeled in front of him, a curly crown of red hair tumbling free. The idea that she wore a burka made him angry. Barely any women in Bangladesh wore them. They wore saris or western clothes. She was only wearing it to disguise herself, not for piety!
"He's out… oh, hell. He's cold and stiff. Dammit!" She slapped her hands down but the sound was muffled by her robes.
"Are you sure, Victoria?" one of the men asked.
"I know a dead body when I see one."
Edward kept very still.
"Wouldn't you know," she whined, "Aro would find another buyer? This guy was a match for three people! That never happens. And now he's dead and we're out ten grand and a heart!"
Edward opened his eyes as Bel stepped from the shadows. He grinned from ear to ear, confusing and frightening Victoria, as Bel grasped her by the hair and forced her head back. "You cannot have his heart. It belongs to me." Bel put her lips close to the redhead's ear. "But my dear, I imagine that Edward would very much like to have your heart. For his breakfast." She held the woman in her arms and all the struggling in the world couldn't free her.
Edward laughed. "I'd like to hear you scream for help, Victoria." He sprang to his feet and picked up both men so that their feet dangled –one monster in each hand. "Nobody will hear you beg. You're all alone now."
One of the men scratched Edward's chest with something but it didn't hurt. With a garbled curse, the man dropped a scalpel. Edward glared at him. He looked at the other man, who cried out and pissed his pants. Edward crushed his windpipe and dropped him like a broken doll.
Edward picked up the scalpel with his free hand. "Who are you?"
The man gulped audibly. "Dr. Biers. Riley Biers."
"Who do you work for, Doctor Biers?"
"The Frenchman. Laurent."
Edward gestured with the scalpel. "And how did you, and the bitch here, come to choose my organs?"
"Th-this guy J-James. He owes Volturi and so Aro s-sent him to Laurent to make restitution. James is the onsite doctor."
"Yeah. He works in the slums." Edward tilted his head slightly. "A disgrace to the profession. Both of you."
The man darted a look at the scalpel. "James had all the medical files."
"Fuck." Anyone who had ever worked for Volturi or received a charity health exam could meet the same fate as Edward!
Edward inspected the scalpel. It was a tad rusty. "I'm sorry. Did you ask for mercy?"
"Please! Don't kill me. Just let me go. I can help you. I can get you inside."
"I'm sorry." Edward ripped off Biers' shirt and plunged the scalpel into his lower back.
"Very sorry." He sliced through hot flesh and venom pooled in his mouth. Biers screamed and clutched at Edward's supporting arm in terror. Edward reached inside Biers' body and pulled out a large, slippery organ.
"But I seem to be in need of a couple of kidneys. And a liver." He raised the steaming kidney to his lips and bit into it. Blood gushed into his mouth and ran down his hand. He sucked and licked up every drop, then handed the useless organ to the man who'd taken his. "Thank you, doctor. That was very tasty. I'll have another."
Edward waited for Biers to wake up each time before he helped himself to another organ. He didn't take Biers' sight. He let him watch the whole thing. But he wasn't as cruel as they'd been to him; Biers only lived long enough to watch Edward cut his heart out on the third day. And the whole time, Victoria screamed and sobbed and begged Bel and Edward to let her go. Edward made her death last longer. Until she was thirsty enough to drink the water in the tub, and beg for food. He neglected to sedate her before each operation and he didn't add any ice or fresh water to the tub.
^ ,_._, ^
One sultry September evening, as the sun set over the delta, Edward Masen emerged from his prison, dressed in an immaculate red and gold sarong. Golden bells dripped from his wrists and ankles. He threw a heavy trash bag into the trunk of his bride's car and helped her into the passenger's seat. Then, he drove southeast, under her direction, to a tiny, impoverished town in the region of Chittagong. Once they reached it, he didn't need Bel's help to find the Volturi Water Treatment Foundation. He dumped the oversized, odiferous garbage bag on Aro's front lawn. Then, he drove Bel home to her northern, secret abode beneath the abandoned Rangpur Palace. She took him to her bed and they worshipped each other.
^ ,_._, ^
"You told me the people call you Bel Bhavani but I don't know your true name."
"I only remember being Bel. I took the surname of the British vampire who rescued me."
"And who was he?"
"His name is Carlisle Cullen. I believe you know him."
"Esme," Edward said sadly.
"Forever and ever. Until they meet again."
"I want to see him."
"You will. He sent you to Rangpur to meet me, you know."
Edward tucked his face into Bel's heavy hair. "Don't ever leave me."
^ ,_._, ^
"I am thirsty," he lamented. "How can we feed and yet aspire to holiness?"
She rose from the bed. "Come."
They walked through dark streets where the homes were nothing more than a bit of cardboard and plastic sheeting piled together. Edward could feel the suffering of his people in his bones. Outside one of the homes, a very old woman and two tiny children crouched, wide-eyed, as they approached.
"Princess," The old woman said, kowtowing then holding up her hands. "Namashkar."
"Namashkar, grandmother. Your daughter is suffering."
"Take my darling daughter to Paradise."
"We will." Bel used both hands to place a good amount of paper money in the old woman's hands. "Care for her children."
"Yes, Princess Parvati. It shall be done."
Bel motioned to Edward to follow her inside the rude hut. She knelt beside the dying woman and lifted her into her arms. Bel began to sing and Edward daydreamed of an incomparable sunset over the delta, and birds in flight, and a sea of stars. The woman sighed and breathed her last. Bel passed her tenderly into Edward's arms.
"Don't bite our daughter; use your nail to make a small cut. Here."
Edward drank every drop and licked his lips. He and Bel put their daughter to bed, took their leave of the grieving family and moved on to the next house of loss.
"Where do you get the money to give them?" he asked quietly.
"My people consider it an honor to have me escort them to Paradise. The wealthy pay handsomely for the privilege, and then I am able to supply alms to the poor, to care for their loved ones."
He glanced at her apologetically. "You wear very fine clothes."
"My people expect me to look like a goddess. They will expect you to have beautiful raiment, too."
"My love. You don't need sapphires or rubies. Your very soul shines like the sun." He chanced a look at her. "But my people are dying from contaminated water and starvation."
"Let us save our people."
^ ,_._, ^
Mahmoud Mohammed paced in the garden outside Rangpur Palace. A chorus of female dancers sang an ancient song to Shiva and the men kneeled on the stones. Mahmoud's eyes shone as he saw two figures approach in shadow. The smaller stepped into the light and her face glowed like that of an angel.
The women stopped dancing and knelt. All the humans except Mahmoud put their foreheads to the ground.
"Princess! How good it is to have you with us again."
"It is good to be with my people. Rise." A red dot adorned her forehead.
Everyone sat up and there were many excited giggles and whispers.
"You have taken a consort at last!" Mahmoud exclaimed.
Bel gestured for Edward to come forward. "I have taken a prince."
Mahmoud was transfixed. "I knew he was the best of men." He bowed low. "Welcome, my prince."
"Thank you, Jonab Mohammed." Edward's face was as white and beautiful as the best alabaster. Like that of his princess, it appeared to glow from within. His lips were red as ruby, his eyes garnet. His brown hair was spun with copper. It fell past his shoulders in a heavy sheet. He wore a royal blue sarong with a belt of thick gold. It matched the sari of the princess. Each of their necks bore a gold circlet inscribed with an ankh. On his arm was a cuff of gold and tiny bells dripped about his ankles.
Edward held out his fist and Bel placed her hand upon it. With the swish of fine silk and the music of bells, they moved to sit on the closest stone bench. She stroked her heavy black braid as their servants clustered around their feet.
"Jonab Mohammed," Edward said. "Come forward."
The old man bowed and approached Edward. He began to kneel but Edward took his hand and prevented him. "You are my friend and trusted advisor. You instigated my rescue."
"I was so worried, my prince, when you disappeared. I knew you loved the people here and would not desert us for any amount of money."
"Indeed, my friend. I will never desert my people."
"I should be thanking you. Hold out your hands."
Mahmoud gasped as Edward and Bel held out purses full of rubies, pearls, emeralds and sapphires and poured them into his hands.
"What would you have me do with these, sire? I have no need of such riches."
"You please me. Every afternoon, I want my students to meet with me here in the garden. I will teach them everything I know about plumbing and sanitation. And they will teach it to their own students. And one day, every person in Bangladesh will be well-fed, with safe water to drink. The children will grow straight and tall, their fathers will live to be old and their mothers will have every convenience and comfort."
Mahmoud's dark eyes welled with tears. "We shall do as you command!"
"Shikkhok!" a young man called out. "I would ask you something."
Edward gestured for his pupil to rise. "Salam, Syed, it's good to see you!"
Syed stood up. "Hasina says she will not marry me because I am Muslim and she is Hindu."
Edward turned his red stare upon his first female student. She looked like she might die of fright. His red eyes danced, but he would not smile lest the people think him immature. "Hasina, why not?"
"He doesn't worship you!"
Edward blinked. "Worship me?"
"You are like Shiva! Do we not greet the princess as Parvati?"
Edward put his elbows on his knees and did his best not to laugh at Hasina. "You think Shiva and Parvati are of my kind?"
"I most definitely do not want you to worship me. Some of my kind are very wicked and none of us is omnipotent."
Hasina gaped at him. "You don't want to be worshipped?"
"Certainly not. Now sort yourself out, worship somebody else and marry the boy."
Hasina dropped a curtsy. A smile crept onto her lowered face.
"Allah be praised!" Syed clapped his hands together. "God bless you, Shikkhok!"
"I am blessed." He looked at Hasina. "Oh, and darling?"
"I can't eat cham cham anymore, but I do hope you'll serve me a morsel of it at your wedding. You're a fortunate man, Syed. Not only have you won my protégée, and my friendship, but you've also got a marvelous baker, there."
"Thank you, Shikkhok!"
Edward nodded and rose to leave. "Khoda hafez, my children."
^ ,_._, ^
Aro Volturi followed his security chief out onto the expansive green lawn fronting his company. A stinking black garbage bag lay there. Hundreds of blowflies buzzed around it. Aro waved them away from his face and covered his nose.
The local police chief pulled away the plastic. A gray face, haloed with fiery red hair, stared up at him. Resting in the massive hole in her chest cavity was a pile of white, wormy meat. He jumped back, retching.
"You see there, her heart and other organs, drained of blood and bearing the marks of teeth. It was a ritualistic killing," the police chief said.
"There is a note, sir." His head of security handed him a sheet of costly paper. Aro took it from him and read it.
What goes around comes around. Riley and Felix were first. Tell James he's next. I'll be checking to see if you're providing clean water to my beloved people. If you don't do as I say, you'll be last. E.M.
"Do you have any idea what this note means, sir?" the police chief asked.
"None at all." Aro Volturi handed it over, clenched his trembling hands into fists and walked back into his private domain.
^ ,_._, ^
Assalamu Alaikum: Peace be with you (Islam/Bangla). Used as a greeting.
Salam: Peace (Islam). Used as a greeting.
Shikkhok: Teacher –masculine (Bangla)
Shikkhika: Teacher –feminine (Bangla)
Namaste/Namashkar: I see what is holy in you, also translated as Peace be with you (Hindi/Bangla)
Khoda hafez: May the Almighty look after you (Islam/Bangla). Used as a farewell.
Jonab: Sir/Mister (Bangla)
Community-led total sanitation: a program used in underdeveloped countries in which local residents teach others (using shame and disgust) not to defecate anywhere that may allow contamination of soil and water. Public pit latrines, enclosed for privacy, are the most common alternatives to squatting and leaving messes behind. Facilities are built and soap, ash, or water is provided for handwashing.
Terms of respectful address: Younger persons are addressed by their first name, with a suffix that denotes their proper place in the elder person's family. The reverse is true when older persons are addressed by younger ones. Two people of the same age would address each other by their first name.