Choral Tales Project
Apanchaneh, the Water Dweller
(The Americas - Mexico)
As Re-told by Shirin Sabri
In this story of the Nahua people (Aztecs) of Mexico, Apanchaneh represents the spirit of water. In a more general sense, though, she can be understood as a symbol of Nature as a whole. Aside from highlighting the importance of kindness and generosity among human beings, the tale seems also to say, “take care of Nature and she will take care of you.”
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There was a time of drought, a time when people struggled to find water. Women had to walk all day, most of them, they spent all day fetching water from the arroyo, from the deep ravine. As the drought went on the arroyo dried, sand sifted over the river bed, and the women had to walk even further to find water.
At this time, Apanchaneh the Water Dweller came down from her mountain, she walked down among the men and women of La Huasteca. She walked slowly along the dusty roads, her hair silver as the strands of rain streaming from low cloud, her eyes dark as the hidden pools deep within mountain caves, her warm brown face creased and runnelled like the sides of the arroyo where storm water had raced and run leaving traces like the tracks of tears. The shy deer followed after Apanchaneh, birds flew about her head and a beaded lizard hid in the eddying folds of her jade green skirt, clinging tight.
The day was hot, so hot. The sun beat down on bare rocks, on cracked earth, and heat rose from the dry road in shimmering waves. The deer hung their heads, and the birds rested when they could, perching for a moment or two in the spiky shade of a juniper bush, but they always followed the Water Dweller.
Apanchaneh came to a town, and there she found two women doing their washing under a pinyon tree. They had water in a bowl for washing. When Apanchaneh greeted them, they looked up, but all they saw was an old woman in a green skirt, her blouse embroidered with yellow corn and unfolding leaves. For a moment the scent of rain rose from the dust.
‘Will you let me have that bowl of water?’ the Water Dweller asked the women. ‘I would like to give some water to my animals.’
‘Water for animals?’ the women exclaimed. ‘You want to give water to animals? You can see for yourself there’s not much here.’
Apanchaneh said nothing. The scent of rain faded, though there was a low, dangerous growl of thunder in the sullen hills. The women looked at each other, and then stared down at their own soapy hands. ‘We don’t have to share water with you,’ one of them muttered resentfully.
‘As you wish,’ replied the Water Dweller, and she walked on, the slow folds of her skirt flowing around her dusty heels, swirling like a river.
A sudden gust of wind slapped through the street, a branch fell from the pinyon, down onto the bowl of water the women had been using for their washing. The bowl turned over, the water emptied itself into the sand and the women began shouting furiously at each other.
The day grew hotter still, so hot it was difficult to breath. The sun rose high, and heat reflected from the buildings onto the road. Apanchaneh walked on patiently with her animals, swaying gently on her wide, steady feet. Grains of colour gleamed in the fabric of her skirt, glittering like sand in a tumbling, sunlit stream.
At last Apanchaneh came to the outskirts of the town. A breeze picked up now that she was out in the open, and it was slightly cooler. She saw a farm, a fortunate farm, for a streak of green on the hillside showed that it had its own spring, a little spring of fresh water. Apanchaneh could hear the trickle of the freshet, dropping softly on water-polished stones. The deer nosed closer, the birds flicked their wings anxiously. She approached the farmer, saying ‘You have water here. I ask you for a favour, may I have some water for my animals to drink?’
The farmer gave a contemptuous grunt. ‘Water!’ he said ‘Here there’s no water for free. Here you buy water!’
The Water Dweller said nothing. Something unidentifiable flickered deep in the dark of her eyes. The farmer hunched up one shoulder and turned his back. ‘Go away and leave us alone!’ he snarled.
‘As you wish,’ replied Apanchaneh, and she walked on, the animals stumbling and fluttering in her wake. As she walked away the trickle of the spring slowed, it slowed and stopped, drawing itself back into the earth. The sun beat down, and the streak of green on the farmer’s hillside began to shrivel and turn brown.
Apanchaneh walked on, over the hill and into the next valley, and as the sun sank lower in the sky she came to another town. Wearily, she sat down to rest, the animals nestling near to her. She could see buckets of water on the porch of a nearby house, each bucket carefully covered with a white cloth to keep out the dust. A woman came out of the house and looked over at Apanchaneh, shading her eyes with one hand against the evening sun. She smiled kindly, beckoning to the stranger.
‘You must be thirsty,’ the woman said.
‘I need water for my animals,’ explained Apanchaneh, so the woman took a cloth from one of the buckets and carried it from the porch, setting it down. The deer drank, the birds drank, even the beaded lizard crept from his hiding place and drank till the bucket was empty, but there were still more animals gathering around the Water Dweller. The woman brought another bucket, and another, till all the creatures had drunk their fill.
Apanchaneh smiled, a smile sweet as a ray of light between clouds, and the scent of rain prickled in the air.
‘Tell everyone in the town to prepare themselves,’ the Water Dweller said before she left, ‘tell them to be ready for the river.’
The arroyo had been dry for so long, no-one could imagine what she was talking about. The people of the town awoke in amazement the next day to a rain drenched morning, and they ran out to stare down into the ravine at a river, a rolling, laughing river of turquoise, curling and foaming over the stones. And from that day to this, the river has flowed, it has never dried, and there has always been water to share.
Shirin Sabir © 2014
Drawing, Eva Tuman © 2014