I watched kites made out of plastic garbage bags fly in the air as we hurried along the path. They looked sort of sinister rising there in the wind like austere crows—the ribbon tracers casting whirling shadows on the trees until they swerved out of control and B-lined for the gravel.
Every July the Village plays the Water Game, though I’ll admit I’ve never participated until the end, so I don’t know what you get if you win, it's a long kept secret. The rules, as far as I understand them, are simple. People are split up into teams and given riddles to solve. Once you guess the riddle, you have to locate the hidden signs somewhere around the Village. The signs have painted anthropomorphized water droplets—with little hats and canes and short statements on how we should value water. Camp stuff.
In this particular game which I would like to share, I am still unsure how to process what happened. Know that no one got sick in the end and I think the Village is still laughing about this story. My account of events leading up to what was later to be known as the Great Embalming Incident started when I was teamed up with Gillem based on our mutual desire to win the game once and for all. We did martial arts moves and stretches as we sized up the competition.
The motivation lasted for about an hour.
Anais read us our first riddle: mouth no tongue. She looked at us like we knew.
“What is that supposed to be?” Gillem said.
“The makeout spot?”
“No tongue, Henri, no tongue, has he never kissed someone before? But good guess.” Anais said.
“Can we have another clue?”
“Ok, but this is the only other one you get. Here, read it.”
What is a room in which you don’t know you’re inside until you leave?
“Hmm. A simulation? An extraterrestrial video game? Is it by the TV?”
“Hey, I didn’t say anything yet—”
“A cave!” Gillem said.
“Yes. Got it.”
“An alien’s video game, really Henri?”
“What?” I said and shrugged my shoulders.
“Ok, go—you’re already behind,” Anais said.
We passed the Shepherd’s house heading towards the only cave we could think of. The way to this cave was by an ancient pathway opposite to the road that comes into the valley. It is very steep and difficult terrain to hike. I don’t remember why but they used to enter the Village via this path. Parts of it had to be traversed using a rope which always felt adventurous. We caught up to another group who was looking for someone’s sunglasses that fell off. We felt sorry but had no time to lose. When we made it to the cave entrance, we awed at the teeth and looked in. I bellowed out a wawooo and it echoed four or five times. The volunteers had installed a rope ladder that dangled from the top of the cave like a roof hatch and unravelled to the ground.
Once we were inside, I could see water droplets beading down the rock walls. The cold air was refreshing, like a chilled bottle of cider on the forehead. We found the first sign there sitting on a flat stone inlet. Painted on the sign in big green letters were statistics of how much water we use a day. It was a lot. I looked down the side of the cave and saw a pool of water and I thought about being kept under a wave for far too long when I skipped my first day of high school to go body surfing. I hesitate to swim now. They told us to turn off the showers while we scrub. To not let it run while we brush our teeth. We were in a drought after all.
Before droughts and before the Village, I didn’t think twice about letting water run in the shower while I scrubbed my body (which I found out is called à l'Americaine). Here I just bathe in the river during the warmer months. I continued on the rope ladder in the obscurité. Rainbow droplets fell onto my face. I saw in another inlet, a red organic looking painting of animal tracks and handprints. Then I found the clue.
If each Nation attended to the Taste and the Manners of their neighbours,
a general Good Taste might diffuse itself.
“All right. What is that?” I said.
“That’s Voltaire!” Gillem said. “Cabin Voltaire, that’s it. That’s the next spot!”
I thought about that clue. I grew up on canned corn. Should that be diffused?
I don’t think anyone has ever made it to the end of the Water Game. Something always happens that causes it to stop. Gillem and I were the first ones in the cave with the clue and we got out of there whispering. Another team was begging us for a hint of where we found it. We said nothing and headed back towards the Village. On our way to Cabin Voltaire, we heard a sound coming out of the Tavern. It was Ty, a volunteer from Vietnam.
“Hey, come into the Tavern,” he said in a hushed voice. He looked excited and giddy, almost drunk.
“What's he so excited about?” I said to Gillem. He shook his head.
“We’re on a tight schedule, we’re playing the Water Game,” Gillem said and started to walk on.
“Oh who is winning? I have something to show you guys!” Ty said.
Gillem and I looked at each other and shrugged.
We walked into the Tavern and none of the lights were lit. Ty went behind the bar and disappeared for a second.
“What are you doing back there?” I said.
“Hold your goats, I hid it.”
“Hid what?” Gillem said.
“This” he said and pulled out a giant glass mason jar containing a diamond back snake. The jar was filled with a dense brownish liquid that was filled up to where the jar started curving. It glowed yellow even though there was little light in the Tavern.
“That’s a hell of a specimen!” Gillem said.
“Want to try it?” Ty said.
“What do you mean try it?” I said.
“Let’s see that,” Gillem said and took the jar. “How did you even get something like this?” He turned it in his hands and held it up to the light of the window.
“The guys from Africa gave it to me. To us. They left it on the shelf behind the bar after the festival with a little note that said ‘gift’ under it hehe,” Ty said, proud. “It isn’t half bad!”
“You drank some? Are you sure you’re supposed to drink it?” Gillem said.
“Back at home we drink alcohol with worms in them, this is no different,” he said. “It warms your insides right up.”
“That is true. Alright, let’s try,” Gillem said, and he opened the jar. He looked down into it and made a face. “You go first Ty.”
“Sure. Chin chin!” he said and took a swig. He gasped after he swallowed it down. “Gah! That’s strong. Not awful though.”
Gillem and I laughed.
“Hand it over,” Gillem said. He looked down into the jar again and said, “Putain! À la votre!” and took a sip. But his face turned red and his whole body seemed to shrivel. “Ty, that is nasty, oh mon dieu. D-É-G-U-E-U-L-A-S-S-E.” He paced around a little and walked over to the foosball table and spun the guardian. “Not a bad buzz though once you got it down.”
“Okay, Henri, your turn.”
“No way, I’m not touching that formaldehyde whatever it is concoction.”
Ty casually took another. Our eyes got big.
“Don’t be a loser, it’s not bad.”
Then the door opened suddenly and before I could see who it was, I heard the words: “WHAT’S not bad?” Once the sentence was finished, I saw it was Nicolais.
Ty tried to hide the jar.
“Let me see that, is that a serpent?”
“No, it’s nothing,” Ty said, “Just cleaning up.”
Nicolais just stood there with a stern face.
“Okay, fine. Check it out—” Ty said and handed it over to him.
“Whoa. That’s a big serpent,” Nicolais said. “Where’d you get that?”
“The guys from the festival left it as a gift.”
“What, uh—is it?”
“A snake in a jar.”
“Well, yeah, but…”
“We think it is a traditional drink. They put a note that said ‘gift’ under it,” Ty said.
“I don’t know, that doesn’t look like a drink.”
“We’ve been sipping from it, right Gillem?” Ty said.
“Yeah, ça frappe forte! Woo, you can feel it,” Gillem said and looked red in the face still.
“Well, if it was bad, you would have got sick by now, no? Let’s see that jar,” Nicolais said, warming up his hands. He inspected the serpent and the shimmering gold light coming from inside the jar and took a sip.
“Wow! What a punch that thing has, those guys are hardcore,” he said.
“See!” Ty said.
“Okay, now you have to try it”
“Fine, hand it here,” I said and took a sip. It had to have been ninety-proof. The only thing I had ever drank that was that strong was a Romanian liqueur one night in a treehouse. But this was more intense and maybe even a little psychedelic, for the warmth and colours that followed were pleasant. I left the guys in the Tavern—couldn’t quite stand up right.
The rest of that day was sort of fuzzy and I had to go take a nap. I couldn’t keep a conversation at that point and the nice feeling started to turn queasy. On the way back to my cabin from the path in the woods I found a source that I’d never seen before. I opened up a flat stone that covered the hole and put my body on the edge so that I could lean down and drink from it with my hands. The water was so cold and fresh and pure that it gave me a brain freeze.
The next day, I went to the office to get the Marmite keys from Nicolais and while I was in there waiting, he got a phone call. It was the guys from Africa checking in on how the cleanup went and how they did at the festival. They asked if we had found their gift. Nicolais replied, “Yes, merci beaucoup, it is already almost gone.”
I heard a tiny distorted voice make a surprised sound.
“Gone? What do you mean... Gone?”
“Well, we drank most of it, a lot of us had a taste, strong stuff! We appreci—” Nicolais looked up towards me into nothing and said, “Oh. . . A-huh. . . I see. . .” He then held his hand over the mouthpiece and whispered to me, “It wasn’t for drinking.”