Right of Thirst: A Novel

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  • Edition: 1st
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2009-10-02
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications
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Shattered by his wife's death, and by his own role in it, successful cardiologist Charles Anderson volunteers to assist with earthquake relief in an impoverished Islamic country in a constant state of conflict with its neighbor. But when the refugees he's come to help do not appear and artillery begins to fall in the distance along the border, the story takes an unexpected turn.This haunting, resonant tour de force about one man's desire to live a moral life offers a moving exploration of the tensions between poverty and wealth, the ethics of intervention, the deep cultural differences that divide the world, and the essential human similarities that unite it.


Right of Thirst
A Novel

Chapter One

She let me lie down beside her. But she didn't want me to touch her, and she didn't want to talk. I suppose we'd talked enough by then.

She looked up at the ceiling, and blinked. The shades on the bedroom window were open, and it was early in the day. The morning nurse was gone, and it would be hours until the evening nurse arrived.

"How long will it take?" she asked.

I fumbled out of my clothes before getting into bed. For an instant I considered remaining dressed.

"Not long. A few minutes."

"Please, Charles," she said, glancing at me, then away. By then I think even her fear had been taken from her. She was calm, and asking for calm.

Her eyes were gray, her hair black where it had grown in again. Despite the hollows of her temples, and the spikes of her cheekbones, it was still her face.

She'd drawn up the bedclothes to her chin—a plain blue quilt, white flannel sheets—as if it were cold outside. Even then she wouldn't reveal her body, and I had not seen it uncovered for weeks. As I eased in beside her the plastic crackled beneath us, and I felt the cold point of her hip against mine.

I tried to put my arms around her. I tried to hold her close, and whisper. But she shook her head.

So I lay on my side and faced her, and took her hand, and held it against my chest. I tried to stroke her hair, also, short and brittle and dry, but she shook her head again. I brought her hand up to my cheek, and held it there, which she allowed. The room was full of fresh air, but underneath the sheets there was the faint smell of urine, as her kidneys continued on, in ignorance. That was the line she had drawn. When I can't get up to the bathroom, she'd said, that's when.

I don't know if I can, I'd replied.

Then her last flash of intensity, turning toward me, sitting up—please help me, Charles. Don't make me do this alone.

Her hand lay easily in mine. It revealed nothing at all, and I held it—neither warm nor cold. Her breathing was steady, and she blinked up at the ceiling. I could smell the apple juice on her breath. If she lay thinking, if she lay gathering herself, I couldn't see it. For the first few minutes, each time I forgot myself, and started to whisper something, she shook her head. And so I did my best, as I had promised her I would. But I was weak anyway, far weaker than she. I shook and trembled, and she lay as still as a sunbather.

On they went—the minutes, the long steady breaths, and we lay there together, and she let me hold her hand against my cheek. I began to wonder whether it had been enough. She continued, minute after minute, breath after breath. I held her hand and waited, my heart pounding, though I tried to empty myself as she did—I tried to follow her, if only for a little while. But I began to sweat beneath the heavy quilt. Soon there were rivulets on my chest and belly, and her hand grew damp in mine. I closed my eyes for a long time. I held her hand as though it could save me, and then I felt it loosen.

Her breathing changed and the gasping began. I had dreaded that gasping for so long, and there it was at last—a steady hiss of inhalation, and then a long, mirror-clouding sigh, and then another, the spaces between growing longer, and then a cluster of breaths, and the beginnings of gray, as my fingers slid to the slow pulse in her wrist.

Six breaths, then four, then none. Her heart continued on, and her face began to change. A light blue, at first, in the lips, but then spreading, like water spilled on a table, darkening to the color of slate. Her heart was strong, but then it too began to go, and I knew exactly what was happening beneath my fingers, the skips and shudders, the pauses and returns, and then, as more minutes passed, nothing at all.

The yellow soap shone on the dish, the grains of dust lit up on the blue tiles below it. I heard the sound of a tractor in the cornfield behind our house. From the corner of my eye I could see my body standing in the mirrors over the bathroom sink—not young, with gray hair on its chest and thickening at the waist—not young, but healthy nonetheless. I tried to clear my head, I leaned my face briefly against the glass door of the shower stall, and then I opened it, and stepped inside, and turned on the water.

All the details that awaited me, the telephone calls, the paperwork, the crunch of tires on the gravel, the prepared explanations—I was in the next room, I came and found her—and finally the bundle carried out, light as a girl—I let all of that dissolve in the steam, as it clouded the door, and encased me.

Only a few days earlier, when she was still able to sit in a chair by the window, she'd told me that she loved me. Her words had caught me by surprise, and as I stood in the shower I tried to cling to them. I hadn't replied, but I'd put my hands on her shoulders from behind, then bent and kissed her cheek. She was trembling, but soon she stopped and looked out through the window and made a casual comment about the dry state of our trees. It was a warm day, and the industrial sprinklers in the fields were on again. At times, I'd look out at them—the sunlight, the wide curtains of water and the millions of sheaves of green corn—and wonder how it had come for her there, through all of that.

Right of Thirst
A Novel
. Copyright © by Frank Huyler. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from Right of Thirst by Frank Huyler
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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