Sarah Bringing Rain
by Autumn Canter
When Sarah was eleven, a hawk swooped down and landed on her arm. Its talons did not break her skin and though she struggled, she supported its weight. It spoke her name and flew off circling at the summit of sky and cloud then departed to the east, past all she had known.
When she told her great-grandfather, he slapped her twice across the face and sent her to fetch water from the well. She pulled it up cloudy with mud and coppery with sediment, then added to it with her tears.
* * *
When Sarah was twelve she was picking maize at the harvest. In rows to left and right she could see her older and younger cousins as flashes and starts of color weaving through the stalks, snapping off the ears, cursing at the flies. Like a fugitive she peeled back a shuck, bit into the hard uncooked kernels and what moisture it gave stung her cracked and bleeding lips. For twelve years she knew thirst like a wad of linen stuck in her throat.
There was then a scream that caught her heart up in her ribs where she swore it did not beat for a three-count. The hawk came diving out of the heavens, having caught a lesser bird still twitching it its talons. It came lower still, pinions glinting golden, and dropped its broken burden at her feet. Red blood over her naked toes, broken feathers raining down on her shoulders, and the kill still alive: a staring panicked eye.
She found a stone and broke its skull. Not wanting to offend, she tied the scaly feet to her belt. Blood wet her thigh as she hurried to catch up with her cousins. Glancing left to right she licked the wet blood from her fingers.
* * *
When Sarah was thirteen, at a wedding feast for her cousin, the hawk came back as a man. His name was Jung Lee, and she knew him as the hawk by the feathers in his hair. He led her through the bodies of the villagers, weaving her around them like a dance.
No one seemed to notice the strange man or her hand hooked tight in his. He wooed her from the crowds and into the wilds. He fed her dew from his fingertips and fruits dug up from the cracked soil. He found life where all life seemed fled, and each dawn he changed into his wings and feathers, flew off into the blinding sunlight and returned at dusk with kill.
They moved deeper into the unknown, across the barren lands and the rock piles like broken toys red as blood. When Jung Lee came back from his flights with no kill, she fed him with her open veins, and he lapped her blood, summoned the dew and earth fruit with his magic, and kept her alive where there was no life, not even hidden life. It was just them: bird man and girl, walking in the ice-cold nights, sleeping in the shadows through the burning days.
She was no longer thirsty, but behind her shoulders where the sun burned her brown, her people cried for water.
* * *
Ibraham is old and aches. He sits in the shadows of the eaves during the day and makes the children fetch him cool water from the well. At night he goes close to the fire, scowls, gums his food, and farts. At celebrations, when the burning water is unflasked, his tongue becomes loose. The children no longer fear his striking hand. Grandchildren, great-grandchild, and the get of nieces and nephews crowd him and wait. Soon there is a story and each story is very close to the same.
He begins by spitting up a glob of mucus, running his tongue over his gums, and looking each young one in the eye to make sure they are attentive.
“When the land was young and fresh like a maiden, the maize grew so fast they harvested three times a season and gave half the bounty to the forest gods, and kept half of what remained to see them through the winter, and feasted on the rest. There was also squash, beets, beans, wheat, and rinds. The trees gave forth with oranges, apples, and pears. So juicy and full of water that to bite into them, why the water just ran down your chin and you could be so wasteful then. You cannot even imagine how good were these things. The water was abundant above and below the earth. The ground was green with life. The earth was split in two. Land for man and forest for the gods. As long as there was this balance the earth was kind, the water and maize was great.
“But man is a selfish, stupid animal with hot blood that boils up his sense. He pissed on this gift, and the gods snatched it away. Even our appeasement and libations would not reach their ears. We grieve for water. We grieve for those lost for nothing.”
A child moaned at the torture of this old tale and the old man, with a rotten belch that cut through his blackened teeth, moved on to a fable of a witty little girl and wily fox.
* * *
Sarah burst from her mother in a flood of blood and fluids right onto the red dust outside the door. The earth sucked up the moisture, ever hungry. Above, a hawk circled high, a black speck on the wind. The clan women were in the maize and the men had scavenged far for water breaking their backs, young and old, under the load. Even little ones, naked in the heat, were weighted down with water while in the fields the women licked the morning dew from the yellowing leaves and prayed for rain.
Sarah lay quiet and new between her mother’s feet as down, down swooped the raptor, wings tight to his sides, talons catching the light like black diamonds knifing the dry air. He grabbed up the cord that bound her to her mother, severed it with his beak and carried it as a prized ribbon off into the heat haze blurring the horizon.
It was his first taste of her.
* * *
She found the water in the lee of a cave, cool moist air spilling up out of the black like a giant’s breath. Water in the air making it heavy. Green shoots in rich soil that tickled her toes. She’d never seen the like. Felt the life of it roar up through the soles of her feet and swoon up into her bones.
Sarah squatted over it. Sent her finger down into it like roots seeking sustenance. She laughed: a giddy bubbling in her middle. She laughed and her body remembered the scent of flowers, of springs long past, of water rushing between two banks, and the wild morning symphonies of birdsong. All of which she had never known.
He watched her, eyes unblinking. Watched her slick the mud up her brown arms, slather it into her long hair. She lay down on the damped mat of grasses at the lee of the cave and wiggled close into the bosom of the earth.
* * *
The moon rose, cutting in and around the misshapen towers of wind-sculpted rock. It came to the cave where the earth breathed in and out, to the little wound of flowing water that drew them all: the vixen lapping to drink, the weasel licking moistened paws, a rodent twitching its whiskers. One hawk waiting, head tucked under wing.
* * *
On the day Sarah was born, her mother died. She was to be burned at dawn, but through the long night Ibraham worked. Dragged her down, parted her from the linens, wrapped up old straw and brush in her likeness and laid it on the precious pile of wood. Dragged at the corpse until it lay between the new rows of sprouting maize and wept onto her depleted belly whirled with the marks of her pregnancy.
He pulled the tongs of old, tough leather from the skin, smelled water and longed to pour it over his hot and swollen tongue. Instead into a deep clay bowl it went to form a trembling pool of silver in the moonglow.
In the night, in the field dry and cracking, eyes caught the feeble light and took to glowing. The old man retreated, drinking his supply of burning water till his head felt heavy as a stone. Only then could he take up the baby girl. He staggered back out into the field, keeping his eyes up at the benign twinkling of the stars, and set the little one sleeping by her mother. He retreated to his drink and plugged up his ears hoping this sacrifice had been enough.
In the morning he awoke to a gentle fall of rain and lusty crying. The babe in the cradle clutched in little fists a ruddy feather tipped in gold.
* * *
Dawn breaks over the fields where the women sway back and forth, collecting corn. Too old to hunt. Too old to gather water, Ibraham is left with a passel of troublesome toddlers and an old stick he uses to prod them when they begin to wander. The children are listless and stalk-thin, crawling over and among each other whimpering of their thirst and the heat.
He remembers a favored granddaughter dancing in the dust, sitting attentive at his knees, fat with child in the shade. Put me in the maize, she said. Put me and the baby in the maize. Bring me home all together.
He feels a shiver of tears on his cheek, cool as a balm. He curses his wastefulness and swipes at his face with a palsied hand. Now both gone. Shoots cut too soon. Old and useless, why was he left behind?
He remembers Sarah lying sleepy in the maize, cheek to the earth. “Mother” she would call, unanswered. There she would lie, her mother’s sacrifice unaccepted, till he prodded her in the side and told her to make use of herself. These dreamy girls of his blood had cut him a river of grief.
* * *
In the end of the day, screaming out of the west comes a darkness that is not night, and its harbingers: a pair of swooping hawks twisting circles around one another, diving and battling aloft like dancers. The clouds that churn and boil behind them are an angry purple, groaning and shouting as they roll over the maize, up over the fires of the people, and knitting the sky horizon to horizon.
Ibraham shouts, tossing his cane. His old feet pound in the dust and he runs like a boy after the hawks screaming, “Sarah! Sarah! My baby girl!” He falls to the earth, his old heart a drum under the arches of his ribs. He puts his mouth to the dirt. “Mother”, he calls, tasting soil. “Mother.”
The rain comes down. The rain comes down and hushes the fires. People toss back their heads to drink. The hawks fly on, screaming triumph into the skies.
Copyright © 2009 by Autumn Canter