Places you could once easily run across were now slippery and inaccessible. You could not rely on rocks and boulders for support, because they had been loosened. All around, people were digging ditches as fast as they could, but to my surprise nobody built any footbridges. In the marshes, we'd had footbridges linking everything to everything. Here, all you would find was the occasional platform which soon sank into the mud. Everybody took to sleeping on platforms. Out of bamboo and scarce boards, stilt villages were constructed. Because the water was now running off the hillsides in streams, people moved back towards the ark: it did not matter much where you lived, you were going to get wet. We woke up with swollen throats. The little ones caught colds, their ears ran with pus, and they cried through the night. My father waded across the plots where his millet was rotting.
The wet did not come from the rain alone. It came from under us and from around us, it rose from everything. The earth slid away beneath us. Mosses grew in the fireplaces. Lakes and streams formed. Flowers bloomed in places where we had never seen any green before. The refuse that had been heaped up began to ferment, foodscraps, excrement, everything became one big mash. The flies stung. In the hills, the swallows seemed to hit the ground in full flight. The blackbirds huddled in the trees, smoothing their feathers. The chickens scrabbled in the mud. The cattle stood at one end of the enclosure, their heads into the wind. Sometimes the rain caught us in the middle of the night. Then we lay, curled up, soaked, waiting for morning. It always came like treachery: it was yet more unbearable dampness.
Zaza blew the ram's horn. At first, we took no notice. It was a familiar sound which was lost amongst all the others, but it started things moving. Animals came down from the hills. They squelched closer, but then held back. They came to a halt in front of the gangplank. They snorted and panted, their fur tangled. Then those who lived in the shipyard realised that the call of the ram's horn had been the signal. The beginning of the end was there, the moment of truth had arrived. In their tens and hundreds, they gathered around the ark, carrying their possessions on their backs in bundles, beating off the cattle and the animals pressing around them with sticks. But the trapdoor did not open until after dark. By evening, they were standing in oozing dung.
When darkness had fallen, the Builder, Shem and Japheth appeared on the deck. They put out a gangplank, which only the animals were permitted to cross. Most of them entered the hold willingly enough. Because of the mud on their feet, they stepped along the gangplank carefully, even those animals who were used to climbing ledges. The warriors were stationed at the gangplank in order to prevent uninvited guests from getting on board. Those who were waiting were becoming tired, realising that they would be standing there for hours if the animals came first, and because Taneses and Zedebab were still sleeping in their tents, they, too, withdrew to rest. The animals, though, kept moving up the gangplank. The dark lent the embarkation a contrived air; it became an event such as you only hear about in stories. There was a solemn movement of paws on planks, careful and fearful, as if the rhythm it produced must never be forgotten. The composition of the boarding crowd was like an ancient recipe: seven clean animals, two unclean. They were distributed over the ship according to their weight. There were animals who panicked at the scent of others; they were kept apart. Some were refractory. The camel, for instance: Shem took hold of it by its halter, and the beast sprayed the contents of its stomach all over him. The snake was denied access to the ark. It had seduced one of the first ancestors of the Rrattika. Judging by its head, it had not really changed after all those years, and was still up to no good, so it was chased back with sticks.
It turned out there were not enough cages. Ham was called away from us to help. He dragged up stakes and bars and in great haste divided the cages up into smaller spaces. Japheth carried animals into the hold, the legless ones, the ones so small you had to keep them in a jar, the animals who were so lazy or slow that without his help it would have taken them half the night.
Of each species they took the biggest and strongest. They seemed not to comprehend that once they had taken the leaders on board, the whole herd was desperate to follow. They had to pull up the gangplank and wait for the animals to calm down before they could continue with the embarkation. From the little field on the slope, you could hear the shouting and, again and again, the counting.
Zaza shuffled across the shipyard. Till the very last moment, she kept shaking seeds out of flowers and putting dried fruits in straw-lined boxes. Neelata had handed her affairs over to her lady's maids. She now stayed in the ship day and night. She had spread out her carpets and wall hangings and made herself a nest. Taneses stayed in her tent while she still could, like Zedebab. Zedebab had strengthened hers with ropes and pegs and would admit no-one, except her twin sister whom she was going to have to leave behind.
We slept from sheer exhaustion, but not for long. We were woken by people shouting further down. Their mats had been lifted by the water. They were afloat. Quickly, they pulled up the flaps of their tents, hoping the water would run out. Only then did they notice that the water was coming from outside. All around them floated the remains of the shipyard, pieces of bamboo from the scaffolding, branches and jugs. The ark still stood, rock solid, at its landing stage. The water lapped gingerly at its keel. Towards morning, we tried to sleep some more. Lying close enough together, stopping any leaks in the cover we lay under and not getting wet seemed much more important than the embarkation going on below.
There were no longer any clear periods between downpours, the rain was constant hour after hour. We became motionless, as if the raindrops had nailed us to the ground by the hems of the blankets we wore over our shoulders like mantles and which had become heavy as lead.
More and more tents were pulled down, mostly by labourers who were leaving. They left the shipyard, but were back after only a few days. 'The Builder is right,' they said. 'The water is covering the whole world.' They were terrified, those simple souls, they nursed no hopes of being among the elect. They were the poorest of the poor, the lowest in society, they knew they did not stand a chance. They tried as best they could to put up their tents again and keep their children dry. They did not complain. The women went on bathing their children every evening and did their best to see they did not catch cold in their damp clothes. They went on trying to cook millet. There is no point suffering hunger, not even if you know you are going to drown. You could not talk to them any longer. Their gaze had been turned inward, and they showed that waiting for death takes place in total solitude.
But even those who thought they would be admitted to the ark became suspicious, particularly when some thirty stowaways, who had hidden in different parts of the ship, were driven out with sticks and whips by the warriors. If so many animals were let in, there would be very little space left over for people. Was it possible they had been deceived all that time, and that only the sons and the nephews and those warriors in their woollen skirts were amongst the elect? The arrogance of the warriors, the impudence they showed when they chased the poor devils from the ship, made it clear there would be fighting for a place. That was what everyone was preparing for: pushing and shoving and fighting. People had another look at their possessions, throwing away anything superfluous, packing anything absolutely essential in even smaller bags. You wondered what these people thought they were going to do with bread that was soaked, with freshly washed clothes that were as wet as the ones on their backs, with small tools, with bags and packs that would make them sink to the bottom instantly. We could hear questions being raised all around the shipyard: 'Why are they letting the animals on first? Do they matter more than people?' When I passed by, some of them could not stop themselves saying, 'This is the revenge of the dead. Led on by strangers, we violated their burial place and stole their water. Now they are repaying us with water.'
Things were still being constantly loaded. The Builder insisted on taking our bath tub. The loading had to be done so fast that the contents of jars and baskets were no longer checked. At the most, Japheth saw to it that anyone who came on board left again. That is how it happened that someone brought some flat baskets on board. No-one heard or saw it happen, but afterwards the story got around: the carrier uttered curses as he entered the ark. In the baskets were the snakes who had been denied entry earlier. Apart from objects, only animals were admitted again that day. On the ground, near the entrance, their feet in the water, exhausted people stood where they could. They no longer dared leave their spots.
The next morning, the red tent had been pulled down. The pegs had been pulled up, the canvas lay on the ground like a dead bat. There were sounds, soft at first, rumbling like distant surf. The winds, coming from all four corners, carried the smells of storm and tempest. Then the rumbling swelled into a drumming full of fury, gods banging on the cages in which they were locked. The earth began to tremble. I saw it in the water in my jugs which took on a life of its own, rippling and splashing. From the hills sounded the hoof beats of rushing herds. Dripping tumbleweeds rolled ahead of the storm, kicked along like outcasts.
Put had been brave up to now. But in the fury of the storm he saw Neelata bring llamas and camels on board. 'I want to go with her,' he screamed. 'It's too scary here!' We let him go, his pockets filled with nuts and dates. We saw him run down the hill like a lost dog, his legs crooked under his body, his face twisted with fear. The Builder was nowhere to be seen. My father stretched the tarpaulin over our boat and shouted over the roaring, 'Why doesn't that man offer a sacrifice? Whoever his god is, now is the time to tender his offering!' He poured milk on the ground for our gods, in particular for the god of the storm with his immense wings. But the earth did not accept the milk. It was already saturated with liquid.