She stretched her right leg out before her, gingerly dipping her big toe into the water. The first touch was cool, making her gasp and giggle in surprise, but it quickly melted into a warm welcome from the marsh water. She lowered her foot in further, throwing her arms wide and grasping a clump of reeds to balance— ever careful not to drop one precious date from her colorful reed-woven basket. She spread her toes apart and wiggled them, grazing against sand and floating slips of vegetation. The sunshine was warm upon her face, the sky an endless blue, and she looked up as a pair of Sacred Ibises squawked, gliding in to settle among the reeds and cattails across from her in the marsh.

Amal’s mother had told her not to enter the water, it wasn’t ready for humans yet. She furrowed her brows and peered intently into the clear water, glimpsing a school of golden fish with gossamer fins casually swim past her. She had heard so many stories about the glory of the marshes— the home of long necked birds with pink plumes, that balanced on impossibly long, thin legs; plants with tall, thin stalks with long grass sprouting from their heads; black birds with long ropey necks and webbed feet; long bodied animals with short legs, slick with fur, black noses and long pointed tails— she was bursting to see these fabled beings for herself.

Carefully, she raised her foot out of the water and planted herself firmly back on the marsh’s bank. Three marble ducks waddled out from the thicket of reeds beside her and plopped into the water, contentedly swimming away. She took a step back, imagining the trouble she’d get into if anyone knew she’d come so close to the water. She was so excited to see the animals and feel the water, but still— she shuddered imagining the scolding she’d get! Besides, she had to take her basket of dates to her grandmother who lived further down the marsh. She turned her head and looked excitedly at the mashoof boats lined up on the bank, their long elegant bodies just waiting to take her down the marsh. The grown-ups had been working tirelessly to build new boats, now that the marshes were nearly revived. She couldn’t wait to ride one! She wondered how fast it would go and if maybe her mother would let her steer the mashoof with its pole. She grinned with anticipation.

She clambered a bit more inland and began her walk to sitto’s home. Amal had been born at the beginning of the Great Revival, and had been raised with the shadows of the Great Drying always looming perilously close, a motivating spector driving all the grown-ups in all the work they did. Looking at the marsh now, as she ambled along its bank, she couldn’t really believe that all the greens and blues and pinks and golds, all the buzzing and rushing, all this hadn’t been here six years ago. That it had been brown, dry, cracked, and silent. The grown-ups said it had all been nearly dead. The water in the marshes had dried up and the earth was crazed and desiccated. And with their home gone, many of the animals had died. Her stomach tightened at the thought and her face scrunched up with an angry sadness. The grown-ups always got a little quieter when they talked about that time. She knew it made them sad to think about, so she didn’t ask them about it very much. Maybe one day she’d ask more, when she was older and they were less sad.

As she walked, the marsh water’s clear reflective surface became punctuated with green islands of reeds, and slowly the water turned emerald and still. She shifted the strap of her basket from one shoulder to the other, and snuck a dark red-brown date into her mouth. She smiled at the sweetness of that first bite, chewy and sticky. She swallowed then bit the pit out and spat it on the ground. Suddenly she heard her mother’s voice in her ear, “Ya Amal ya helwi, take these dates straight to your grandmother, their date trees haven’t borne fruit yet. Just go straight there and back. Don’t get into any trouble!” She stopped walking and quickly looked around, half expecting her mother to suddenly pop out of the reeds and catch her sticky-handed. But she was alone, except for the family of pelicans floating idly on the green water. She began walking again but stopped short when she saw the reeds beside her stir, and a large black mass with horns slowly emerged. Her eyes grew wide as they met its large black eyes. She froze.

It was a water buffalo. Its eyes were so large and black, its ears as big as wings, and its enormous white horns pointing upwards— Amal was shocked. They stood staring at each other for what felt, to Amal, like an eternity.

She had heard stories about the water buffalo, how plentiful they had been before the Great Drying, how they had been a part of people’s families. As the Great Drying began they had begun dying. As the water dried up, the plants shriveled, and the mash animals died, many families lost the water buffalo they had cared for. It was a regional emergency and neighboring governments had put aside perceived differences and came together to revive the marshes for all their living inhabitants. Families sent out search parties to rescue any animals and plants they could find that had survived the onset of the Great Drying. They set up small communes for them and foraged to feed them, sometimes forgoing food themselves to keep the animals alive. Dams were opened, allowing a trickle of water to return to the marshes, but they needed rainfall.

In an abrupt about face, the regional governments decided to listen to their own ministers’ warnings about the self-ending nature of oil extraction, and immediately ceased all oil production. The fallow oil rigs were rebuilt into solar panels and wind turbines, whose energy was distributed for free to the people of the region, and sold to lands further away. Scientists had gathered in the desert to build The Water Gatherers— solar powered machines that cooled the air enough to create condensation and eventually water, which was used to revive the cattails, reeds, forests, and date trees that ran along the marsh banks. Iraq’s fortunes improved with its switch to solar energy, and other oil producing countries quickly followed suit. With the world’s energy consumption quickly flipped to clean energy, the climate began to slowly restabilize. After a year of shallow mud in the marshes, the rains came. First they came in clusters, with long gaps between showers, but two years passed and the rains became seasonal, like before the Great Drying. The marshes rose and swelled and reclaimed their place in Iraq’s landscape. Plants were reseeded and transplanted back to the banks of the marshes. The brown, dry landscape was reclaimed by life, overtaken by greens and blues and movement. Families returned the rescued animals and their children to their revived habitat.

But the people knew the habitat was still fragile, and for years held their breath until the next rain came, not quite believing it would. But the marsh and its inhabitants grew back with a verdant, thrumming ferocity. To ensure their revival and survival, the families of the marshes had declared no human was to set foot in the marshes until the end of 2030. At that point the marshes’ ecology would have been revived undisturbed for six years, and could absorb humans’ gentle reimmersion into its life.

The end of 2030 was three months away, but Amal was face to face with the Great Revival right now. She stood rooted in place, unable to move. Should she run? Would the buffalo chase her? Would it hit her with its horns or with its wide, strong forehead? She didn’t think water buffalo ate people, she couldn’t remember grown-ups telling any such stories, but she couldn’t remember for sure. Maybe if she stood very still it would just go back into the water…

Amal stood like a stone, body tense, staring at the water buffalo, her arm frozen in mid-air holding the date. The water buffalo tilted its head and wrinkled its nose, thrashing its tail about in the water. The reeds rustled and began to part as it took two determined steps towards her. It was beautiful, its black fur glistening wet in the sunlight, its eyes a luminescent black. Amal could feel its warm breath on her hand, and her body began to relax. She really, really wanted to reach out and stroke its head but fear held her back. The water buffalo opened its mouth wide and before Amal realized what was happening, wrapped its tongue around the date in Amal’s hand and sucked it back into its mouth. It chewed ponderously for a moment or two, never taking its eyes off Amal, then reached its head closer to her and nudged her shoulder with its nose. Amal snapped back into attention— the dates! The water buffalo was smelling the dates and wanted more!

Amal quickly swung her basket around to her front and pulled out three dates. She thought she saw the water buffalo smile, but wasn’t sure if they do such things. Tentatively, she offered the water buffalo a date. Its tongue snapped out and quickly grabbed the treat. She giggled as its rough tongue rasped against her hand, leaving it wet with slimy saliva. She held out the second date and again the water buffalo scooped it up. As it chewed, Amal raised her free hand and slowly placed it on the water buffalo’s smooth head. She slowly stroked its forehead and ears, grazing just one finger subtly against its horn to feel how strong it was. The water buffalo tossed its head and nudged towards the hand holding the third date. Amal smiled and bowed a little before feeding it to the animal.

‘Bi sahtak.’

To your health, she said.