‘Hard Rains’, S.J. Sabri

Illustrations © 2016 Pear Nuallak

 [ Dry, © 2016 Pear Nuallak ] The creature climbed into my car when I stopped to buy water, that time when I left it with doors spread wide like a bird with wings akimbo. I was only gone a second, didn’t even turn off the music, just left it pounding out defiantly into the glaring white shade thrown by concrete walls. I was disturbing the peace, and I didn’t care. The woman in the store complained as she took my money, and I told her I’d be gone soon enough. The… whatever… was huddled half under the passenger seat when I came back, a creature that looked like a thing with talons and teeth one second, like a wisp of cloud the next. Its silver ribs moved painfully with each dragging breath. We watched each other for a bit. I turned off the music and listened, but the creature was silent. Its breathing made no sound. Cautiously, warily, I offered it my open bottle of water. It didn’t drink. It climbed right in and curled like an embryo, eyes closing, chin tucked down, the clawed hands coming up to cover its glistening nose. It was breathing water, slowly, luxuriously, scaled lips slightly parted. It didn’t even twitch when I screwed the lid of the bottle back on and started the car.

Wheels skittered and then hummed onto the road in a low drone. I found myself singing one of those weirdly prescient laments from early in the century, in counterpoint to a melody that was flowing through the deeps below my conscious mind.

‘I need another world

This one’s nearly gone…’

I had been heading toward the coast anyway, for what I don’t know. There I was, one of the lucky ones, my family’s old house in the mountains sold up, all set for a new start and nowhere to go.

‘I miss the things that grow…’

My voice cracked then, and I swallowed tears. Perhaps I just wanted to stand on the ragged shoreline that marked the edge of our shrunken world, to reflect on the irony of a world drowning and dying of thirst all at the same time. We had changed our ways and changed our machines a long time back, too little, too late. The vast polar ice shelves collapsed anyway. When we stopped dirtying the sky we found that the clouds that once shaded us had gone too, and the temperatures kept going up.

No one had gardens anymore. There was not enough water for luxuries, for spreading trees, for flowers. People pulled back into themselves, just trying to survive. We needed every drop of water to grow food under protective rooves, every scrap of energy for work. Everything else was a part of the decadence that got us into this mess. So people said. The rain would return, we promised ourselves. It had not. I sang, and listened to the leaves that rustled softly in my head. The great cities, the wide white beaches—they were gone, long since. The rich, for the rich are always with us, had learned to live on higher ground. It occurred to me that land was cheap on the coast these days. I could look at properties. It would be something to do.

There were too many places for sale, so many that they all started to blur together, one scrubby, empty, salt stung stretch of acreage after another. The estate agent, Mr Palt, was the mayor of the nearest town when he wasn’t busy failing to sell properties. He had the sad, slumped shoulders and mournful voice of one who was sure we were both wasting our time. It was disheartening. Then, on one of those stretches of land I found an abandoned sapling clinging to life. On impulse, I took the bottle and the creature and poured both of them over the tiny tree, already preparing to detach, to walk away. But I had released the genie. It slid down that scrawny tree in a dribble of silver and wrapped its arms and tail around the skinny bole. A scent I had almost forgotten, unknown since early childhood, the pungent smell of rain on dust—this rose and enveloped me, and then I was lost, dreaming of trees. Blinking, I looked around, seeing, really seeing the land, the decaying house, the dust eddying in the wind, the brassy sky. A sand choked crease made me think there could once have been a creek running down to the sea. I tracked it back with my eyes, and saw the faint remnants of a gully wander away into low brown hills. The property was well over 200 acres, the biggest plot available. I turned to look at Mr. Palt. He spoke first, shrugging his shoulders apologetically.

‘Not much here, really…’ his voice tailed off and he gave me a nervous smile.

‘Not much.’ I grinned at him and signed all the papers that afternoon.

I moved in a few weeks later, and found that the sapling had already thickened and doubled in height. The creature was still there, snugged up to the tree’s slender trunk, claws embedded in the bark, face tucked down out of sight. It had grown, too. I put my speakers out on the porch and let music fill the air. The creature didn’t look up when I dragged out a pickaxe and spade and started hacking rocks out of the brittle ground. By the second day I had shifted two rocks and was sitting slumped, aching and sweat soaked, the beat of drums matching the pounding in my head, gasping,

‘I can’t do this, I can’t…’ Dust had caked itself into every fold of skin, my sweat ran earth red. Then I felt the weight of something damp and cool leaning against my ankles and knees, a breath and the scent of rain. It did not stay long. When I lifted my head the creature had returned to its tree, but its eyes were open now. It watched me. So I hauled myself to my feet and kept working. On the third day, the boy showed up. He must have been standing there a while, watching the strange lady sing along with ‘thanks for making me a fighter’ in short gasps. I have always loved that song—it was my mother’s favorite, a relic from her childhood. Right then, I needed her toughness.

‘You need help,’ he said. It was a statement, not a question. ‘Three dollars an hour.’ Another statement, followed by a proviso: ‘Plus food.’ He always called me ‘Miss Ava’, politely, though we worked side by side. His name was Joe. ‘What you making, Miss Ava?’ he asked three rocks later, with a wary sideways glance at the sapling. I wondered if he could see what was there. Mr. Palt hadn’t, which had been both a relief and a cause for some concern.

‘A garden,’ I answered, avoiding detail. ‘A refuge.’ Joe tipped his head cautiously in the direction of the creature and raised one eyebrow. I took a quick breath and met his eyes. There was a steady awareness in them that made me nod, concealing my surprise. We both looked away then, and spent a while thinking. I was just absorbing the fact that someone else actually could see my creature. The boy had his own concerns.

‘You hear leaves rustling, Miss Ava? Like there’s a whole forest here, only we can’t see it?’ I turned to stare at him, but he was looking carefully at the ground as he dug. ‘And there’s this smell—have you noticed?’

‘The smell of rain,’ I told him. ‘That’s what rain smelt like.’

‘You seen rain?’ Joe paused in his work, awed.

‘Not since I was a little girl,’ I admitted, ‘but I know the smell.’

‘Uh huh.’ Joe dug for a while, frowning down at his spade. Eventually he said, ‘This’s gonna be bigger than a garden, Miss Ava, you know that, don’t you?’ I guess I did know that, even then. I was just trying not to think about it too much.

I persuaded him to play his choice of music through my speakers, right out loud. Kids his age had learned to hide music in earbuds, they were careful not to dance. These things weren’t forbidden. They had just been stared and whispered into shrinking away all by themselves. Thing was, I’d read about music being played in greenhouses, back when we had them. It made plants grow, that’s what those old-time writers said, no matter what kind of song was played. Certainly something pulsed more strongly through the creature’s glittering body when there was a rhythm to drive it.

Of course, the music got us a visit from Mr. Palt, this time with his mayor’s hat on. Apparently there had been complaints, though we never did find out who made them. I spent a day in the town figuring out that we were legal as long as we didn’t make any noise after 10 pm, so we stuck to that. In the sudden silence of stilled speakers I would hear an engine start up in the night and pull away down the road, so someone was checking up on us.

Once a week the boy and I drove out to scout abandoned properties for fruit trees, nut trees, tough thorny brambles, anything that had survived. When we lowered the first of those starveling plants into place, the creature appeared, muscling its cold, wet head between us. It nosed the sparse leaves gently, then leaned forward and spat onto the root ball. It did the same for every new planting, and they thrived. The creature, my water genie, walked with us now as we worked, or rested nearby in the scattered shade of young trees, chin on paws, watching us.

After some months, Mr. Palt’s clattery old car made its way down the road. He stumped over, head jutting, neck strained like an agitated tortoise.

‘People don’t like what you’re doing,’ he warned, wispy beard quivering. ‘Seems to me you could make a little more effort to fit in around here, maybe grow some decent crops.’

‘It’s my land,’ I told him. ‘I’ll plant what I think is best.’ An answer that made his shoulders slope resentfully toward his round little stomach. He did not try to argue his case any further. Mr. Palt did not specialize in direct attack.

Shortly after that my utilities were cut off. I received a letter saying that the area was now too thinly populated to make it worthwhile for power and water to be provided for people on acreage. I took the letter outside, shaking with rage, struggling to think past the anger. Of course my solar panels provided enough power to get by off-grid, but water was another matter. Without water piped in from the big desalination plant down the coast we could not survive. My beautiful trees were too big now, and too many, far too many to move, all of them growing fiercely and hungry for water. And the rain beast? What would become of it if I lost this land? I was slumped on the back stairs, bitter with misery, when I heard Mr. Palt’s car wheezing up to the gate. There was a group of farmers willing to buy me out, he said. I could go make trouble somewhere else.

I told Joe when he arrived for work, but he was shaking his head before I had even finished speaking.

‘We have to have water.’ I could not get through to him.

‘We’ll dig a well,’ he said.

‘A well? Do you have any idea…? Do you even know how far the water table has sunk? Groundwater reserves have been drained to the dregs of mud and stone, they use old oil rigs to find water now, oil rigs, dammit, and the water comes up steaming and stinking like the bowels of the earth!’ Joe didn’t respond. He was gazing over at the creature. It padded slowly toward us and laid the chill weight of its head in my lap. I sighed, rested my hand on its broad neck and closed my eyes.

‘We’ll dig it anyway,’ the boy told me.

We couldn’t do it alone. I had enough money left to pay the rag tag bunch of teenagers Joe brought over, and we started digging the well. I taught them all to dance, and somehow, after working all day they still had the energy for it. I sat on the porch, my muscles aching, and watched them circle and spin, shuffling in joyous loops around each other. They had few enough chances for joy in the world they had been born into. Most people thought dancing was a frivolous waste of time. It had gone the way of flowers and all the other pretty things we had decided to give up in our efforts to stay alive. I gazed past the dancers and found my mind superimposing a vision of another kind of dance, of older drums, of serious, intent faces, summoning something. These kids were full of laughter, but they had called something. The creature was winding itself among them, coiling through their dance, the glorious scent of rain and green leaves rose from the bare dirt, and I felt my heart lift with hope.

Each evening, after the kids had gone home, the rain beast would circle the piles of rubble, stropping its chin on the stones. Then it would lean down into the hole and spit carefully into the darkness. Next morning the kids would come and dig some more, deeper and deeper into the bone hard earth, down and down, till the diggers had to clamber in and out of the shaft using a rope ladder.

Their screams called me, made me run, stumbling and slipping on gravel, gasping for breath.

‘His feet are wet!’ shouted one of the girls, dancing around the well head and pointing down to the lad scraping his spade in the bottom. ‘He says his feet are wet!’

The well filled slowly with clear, cold, sweet water. We had enough to drink and I could water the trees. They had grown higher than my head, branches heavy with leaf; but I knew they were not ready to fruit. With my cash reserves depleted, what was I going to live on in the meantime? The answer to that question appeared within days, thumbs in his braces, staring at the ground.

‘Kids say you c’n find water,’ he mumbled.

So I went out next day to wave a water divining rod around while I chose what looked to me like a good spot for a well, then went back at night, the rain beast slouching beside me, ready to seed the hole they were digging.

‘Play music,’ I told that farmer earnestly. ‘If you want this to work, play music, loud as you can.’ He was desperate enough to do what I said, even when the mayor showed up with the police chief in tow to ask pointed questions. I’d been careful to mention the 10 pm rule, so there wasn’t much they could do to stop him.

The shaft that farmer dug filled with water and then I started to get visitors, folk who came just to have a look at my well, to taste the water we drew up in dripping buckets. They would savor it, swallowing slowly. There would be some throat clearing and shuffling, followed by a hesitant request. The wells I “found” brought in a small, steady income, even though I was limited to places I could walk to. The creature had long since outgrown my car. Sometimes people had to wait a long time before I could come to them, but they did wait, and willingly, even though I could not explain why they had to. The creature would come with me, but only when it chose to do so. And it had discovered the sea.

The rain beast would lope in a smooth, sinuous flow over the waves, and where it ran, clouds would shimmer into being, while echoes of thunder roared over the crash of waves. I kept anxious watch, at first, but it always returned, sometimes quite soon, sometimes days or even weeks later, each time larger, thrumming with suppressed power. A sharp glint of teeth would show when it paused to stare out over the land, water dripping from its jaws, salt as blood. I would hear a soft groan and sigh from the thin earth when the creature trod up the shore, its feet sinking a little with each step, though it left no prints. It would lounge in the gully that had once been a creek, twining its length around dusty rocks. The gully began to smell marshy in shadier spots and over winter the dusty creek bottom gradually darkened into patches of wet ooze or slime edged ponds, though they dried again into crackle glazed mud when summer returned. The following winter the ponds were bigger, and a year after that a stream began to trickle again, fitfully at first but strengthening season by season until it ran year round, widening under the green shadows of leaves.

The owners of wells saw their plantings flourish. I started to get visits from them, folk who would tell me their news and then look at their feet for too long before asking if I had ever seen a ‘thing’ come out of my well and go walking around in the night.

‘It kinda… it kisses the seedlings, Miss Ava—is that alright?’

‘Crops are growing, aren’t they?’

‘They are that,’ was the reply, with a reluctant grin. ‘They are that.’

 [ Jungle, © 2016 Pear Nuallak ] My trees had grown huge and feral, had seeded themselves and spread. More visitors came, some just to walk under their spreading branches, to breath in coolness. We even built a place for people to sit, and started to sell them teas. We had other visitors, though, people who stared at my garden with a mixture of rage and envy. They had plenty of names to call me. Mostly they seemed to feel I had stolen their good farmland. The fact that it had never been theirs and hadn’t been good before I got there kind of passed them by. The worst of them never set foot on my land—they just lay in wait for me when I had to go to town for supplies. I got shoved around pretty often, and once a lady came right up and spat in my face. After that, Joe wanted to do the run into town, but I said no. If he got shoved, he might just shove back, and then where’d we be? I thought if I could just keep ignoring them they’d get tired and quit, but when I refused to respond, they took their complaints to someone who would listen.

So Mr. Palt came to see us again. He had his chin pushed forward nervously so that his thin beard bristled. This time he had brought backup, a group of heavy shouldered men with faces like slabs who would not look me in the eye. They decided we would have our chat in the outdoor tea room. Mr. Palt perched uncomfortably on the edge of a chair but the other men chose to stand.

‘Property prices have gone up,’ Mr. Palt observed. ‘That would be your doing, I suspect.’ And he gave me a pre-planned indulgent chuckle. I waited for him to get to the point. ‘I must admit, you have made quite a difference to this place.’ He gazed around at the trembling green of leaves and nodded a few times. ‘As it turns out,’ he commended me, ‘you were wise to wait. You will make quite a profit when you sell, plenty of money for you to make a new start elsewhere.’

‘What?’ I asked, not keeping up. ‘Sell?’

‘And finding that well! You have had some remarkable luck, dear lady, remarkable!’

‘Luck?’ I asked, still trying to work out what was going on. The men Mr. Palt had brought with him shifted their feet impatiently.

‘Ah, yes, remarkable.’ The men loomed behind him. ‘Of course, your land is appallingly overgrown, but my friends here are quite willing to deal with that. They can slash and burn this weed jungle of yours and then the fertility of the land—’

‘They can WHAT?’ A young family nearby hurriedly finished off their teas, paid and left. Mr. Palt stared at me beadily from under his pouched lids.

‘It will have to be done, dear lady; it will have to be done. You must understand that the willful, wasteful misuse of good farmland cannot be tolerated indefinitely. We live in very difficult times, very difficult, and ah…’ He stood to leave. The group of men looked at him impatiently, but he smiled at them briefly and then turned to me, saying, ‘Better to sell than be forced out when people finally decide to take action, don’t you think?’

To be fair, I don’t think he intended to drop any hints to his companions that day. Mr. Palt was ready for a slow moving war of attrition, and I was ready to dig in and fight in the trenches. I figured on winning because I had already understood that my job was to grow the creature and its children, and for that all I needed was time, a little more time. Afterwards, of course, the slab faced men piled blame onto Mr. Palt’s hunched shoulders, but then you’d expect that.

Through all this, people who loved my trees kept coming, begging for my help. By that time most of them were traveling a long way to get to us, too far for me to walk with the rain beast. I needed a way to seed more wells. Eventually a thought came to me—that I should gather glass bottles and fill them with well water, then bring them to the creature. I waited while it dropped a shining gobbet of spit carefully into each container. It watched me closely as I screwed on the lids. The blobs took shape and the water gleamed with coils in the light. Sometimes there was a flash of needle fangs, the shadow of an embryo floating, eyes closed. I understood, even then, what it was that I was sending out into the world, what must happen, but the people who came to buy my water to seed their wells did not want to know about that. They wanted the magical bottles of liquid because they would work, and came from further and further afield to get them, giving what they could in return, young plants, a few chickens to scratch among the leaves, a package or two of seeds. Laughing with embarrassment, they would promise that they were going to sing, to play music, right out loud. And maybe even dance.

One evening after everyone had left I went down to the twilit shoreline with the creature, seeking silence and space to think in. It flung itself out over the waters, clawing great runnels in the waves, shredding their tops into glittering foam as it leapt high and out, far out to sea. I waited for some time, gazing out over the whitecaps. A rising wind was slapping the rocks with spray, stinging my cheeks and whipping my hair into my mouth. I called, singing out across the ocean, but no answer came. The horizon was empty, and sharp gusts whirled dust around my ankles.

The wind grew wilder; I heard it crashing through the treetops like waves as I drifted off to sleep. But it was another noise that jerked me into wakefulness, something unfamiliar. I sat up, dream fuddled, trying to work out what it was. It sounded as if a giant’s soup pot was boiling rapidly in my storeroom, and far too slowly I realized that this was the deep seethe and splutter of flames. I grabbed a blanket around myself and ran outside, turning on my heels to stare upward, hand pressed over my mouth to hold in a shriek. Gouts of fire spurted out from under the storeroom’s eaves as the blaze took hold. An explosion in the forest finally tore the wail of despair from my smoke roughened throat. Flames, driven by the wind, spiraled upward from burning tree tops, sparks snapping from their heights. The creature was nowhere to be seen.

Dark figures were darting out from the shadows, stumbling when a gust caught them out into the open. My yells were lost in the chaos of fire and wind. The arsonists had their truck parked out on the narrow road, doors slammed as they scrambled in, tires squealed. Headlights crisscrossed in the smoky night. My near neighbors, well owners all, were racing to my aid, blocking the road with their vehicles. The invader’s truck side-swiped one of them as it pulled out onto the road and I saw a battered pickup teeter on two wheels in the ocherous light. The fleeing vehicle fishtailed, skidded, and ploughed into a ditch. The old pickup regained its balance, jouncing off the road as it did so.

Joe’s truck jolted to a halt and he leapt out, shouting,

‘Miss Ava! What happened?’ his eyes were filled with the orange flicker of flames. My friends had brought barrels of precious water, droplets that would hiss away into nothing in the face of this conflagration.

‘Come to me!’ I screamed my summons into the gale, desperate as a witch in a tumbril. ‘Come now!’ and at last the creature flew howling in from the sea. It shuddered over the roof, ripped away the storeroom wall and doused the fire with one drenching punch of its breath. It tore branches as it passed, hailing them down on the fleeing arsonist’s heads. Bellowing, my water genie ripped through our forest, sucking the air away from flames and spitting it back as a thick, steaming fog. It circled back, lashing the invaders till they dragged themselves toward the sodden remains of my house, pleading for sanctuary. The beast snarled, rattling the walls, then wound its length back in amongst the scorched trees, muttering over the wet black ashes of all we had lost.

When the police arrived they paid no attention to garbled stories about a monster, especially since my friends and I all stated firmly and sanely that we had never seen any such thing. The fire-starting equipment the men still had in their backpacks betrayed them, and that was when they decided to implicate Mr. Palt. They were hoping blame shared would be blame halved, I guess. The mayor left town in kind of a hurry, and we gained the time we needed.

Our charred trees soon grew a fuzz of brilliant green on their blackened trunks, regenerating faster than I would have thought possible. The clearings created by the freak windstorm (we had all agreed to call it that) soon filled with vigorous new growth. The kids and I planted more trees. They danced under a roof of leaves while I tapped my feet on the porch. We sent out more and more bottles of our well seeding water, each with a new formed genie turning in its depths. The immense presence coiled within our green labyrinth grew, and waited.

Sometimes I slide into the tangled forest deeps to find my creature where it lurks.

‘You grow great,’ I whisper. ‘The little ones we have scattered increase in strength.’ Then I clasp one curved talon, cold and heavy as water between my hands. I cool my forehead on the scales of a huge knuckle, singing a song from long ago as visions of the fresh floods to come rise behind my closed eyes, ‘It’s a hard… It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.’ The death of the old, the birth of the new—both of them hurt, and neither can be stopped when their time has come. The creature leans down to breathe its rain scented breath into my nostrils. ‘Soon,’ I whisper. ‘Soon.’

© 2016 S.J. Sabri

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