Thirst woke him. It was not the healthy thirst that follows three sets of tennis or a day spent skiing, thirst that comes slowly: it was the grinding, relentless thirst that comes of the body's desperate attempt to replenish liquids that have been displaced by alcohol. He lay in his bed, suddenly awake, covered with a thin film of sweat, his underwear damp and clinging.
At first he thought he could outwit it, ignore it and fall back into the sodden sleep from which his thirst had prodded him. He turned on his side, mouth open on the pillow, and pulled the covers up over his shoulder. But much as his body craved more rest, he could not force it to ignore his thirst nor the faint nervousness of his stomach. He lay there, inert and utterly deprived of will, and told himself to go back to sleep.
For some minutes he succeeded, but then a church bell somewhere towards the city poked him back to consciousness. The idea of liquid seeped into his mind: a glass of sparkling mineral water, its sides running with condensation; the drinking fountain in the corridor of his elementary school; a paper cup filled with Coca-Cola. He needed liquid more than anything life had ever presented to him as desirable or good.
Again, he tried to force himself to sleep, but he knew he had lost and now had no choice but to get out of bed. He started to think about which side of bed to get out of and whether the floor of the corridor would be cold, but then he pushed all of these considerations aside as violently as he did his blankets and got to his feet. His head throbbed and his stomach registered resentment of its new position relative to the floor, but his thirst ignored them both.
He opened the door to his room and started down the corridor, its length illuminated by the light that filtered in from outside. As he had feared, the linoleum tiles were harsh on his naked feet, but the thought of the water that lay ahead gave him the will to ignore the cold.
He entered the bathroom and, driven by absolute need, headed to the first of the white sinks that lined the wall. He turned on the cold tap and let it run for a minute: even in his fuddled state he remembered the rusty warm taste of the first water that emerged from those pipes. When the water that ran over his hand was cold, he cupped both hands and bent down towards them. Noisy as a dog, he slurped the water and felt it moving inside him, cooling and saving him as it went. Experience had taught him to stop after the first few mouthfuls, stop and wait to see how his troubled stomach would respond to the surprise of liquid without alcohol. At first, it didn't like it, but youth and good health made up for that, and then his stomach accepted the water quietly, even asked for more.
Happy to comply, he leaned down again and took eight or nine large mouthfuls, each one bringing more relief to his tortured body. The sudden flood of water triggered something in his stomach, and that in turn triggered something in his brain, and he grew dizzy and had to lean forward, hands propped on the front of the sink, until the world grew quiet again.
He put his hands under the still flowing stream and drank again. At a certain point, experience and sense told him any more would be risky, so he stood up straight, eyes closed, and dragged his wet palms across his face and down the front of his T-shirt. He lifted the hem and wiped at his lips; then, refreshed and feeling as if he might again begin to contemplate life, he turned to go back to his room.
And saw the bat, or what his muddled senses first perceived as a bat, just there, off in the distance. It couldn't be a bat, for it was easily two metres long and as wide as a man. But it had the shape of a bat. It appeared to suspend itself against the wall, its head perched above black wings that hung limp at its sides, clawed feet projecting from beneath.
Copyright © 2003 by Donna Leon. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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