Single-Handedly

Pray for Rain

The farmer examined his wheat fields. At least, he had intended them to be wheat; rain had not come since he’d seeded the stiff-ploughed plain one month ago.

Beyond his brown-turned plot lay an ivy-filled expanse of hardwood. When his wheat was grown tall he could only see the trees themselves, and not the actual border to his hinterlands. His view now was unobstructed, and he could see how near to his fields the ivy was stealing. Though the trees were sparse at the upper branches, green strands gave each trunk a thick varnish of leaf, and hung in hammocks between the trees. Green ivy, green trees, behind brown fields mystified him.

“Pray for rain,” he murmured, turning to the tensed femininity behind him on the dust-worn porch. She placed a cool hand on his shoulder, and he grasped it as if it were his only link to life.

“Pray for rain,” he repeated, softer even than before. Turning, he creaked open a time-punctured screen door and led his wife inside.

They slept; and in the darkness, deliverance came. Often that night, the gentle patter of rain woke him, dampening his land, malting his wheat, and greening his fields. All through the night, he returned to sleep peacefully, knowing he and his wife would be well provided-for. Finally, a rooster sounded, and he arose hastily to view the godsend.

He walked down his dry gravel walk and noted a biting of dust in his nostrils. Some small fear took root deep in his chest. Rushing more, he found his way to the gate and fell to his knees.

Grasping handfuls of dry earth, he knelt, for a moment dumb before a piteous cry escaped his lips, like that of a rabbit in the jaws of a fox.

*****

Several days went by as a routine, growing emptier and emptier.

“I’m going out,” he told his wife.

“Do you want something to take with you?” she asked. She was very careful of him lately.

“No, I’m only going to the woods.”

“Can I come with you?”

“I need to be alone.”

He went out the flimsy screen door with its peeling white paint, crossed the weather-shrunken boards, and the porch steps creaked beneath him. The dust still bit his nose and throat. He crossed the acres with little regard for the paths through them: he was scuffing his feet merely among the ashes of a lost cause.

At last he reached the line he himself had never breached. Standing still, and seeing so close the green grandeur of stately oaks, hawthorns, and hickory nuts, so close the coddling ivies and bindweeds, he was somewhere within himself frightened. He stayed before the forest for some moments, then shook himself; and forcing aside a curtain of ivy, took sanctuary under the boughs.

As he wandered this other world, all was still about him. The canopy above protected him from the scorching sun and cloudless sky; first the ivy screen, then the whole bulk of the forest, protected him from the sight of his fruitless land. So protected, he lay upon the sparse turf near a twisted, but still most violently living oak, acorns among the leaves around him.

Thoughts of the farm entered his head; but here, somehow they were more easily dismissed than in the world outside. He even fell to a peaceful sleep, unharried by dreams of failure and unteased by dreams of rain. The forest’s leaf-light was dying when he awoke.

Far above him, while he slept, a breeze had found breath enough to travel, and was stirring the feather-tops of the greenery. Leaf shaking against twig and leaf led to his fevered desirous ears, now awakened from both sleep and peace, a patter and clip which made his heart rise to peer out at the world. Around each tree he fancied a halo of blue joy.

Up he looked, and held out his hands to catch the first ambassadors of relief. He closed his eyes and opened his mouth to taste the most delicious cool flavour, but waited. At long length, he felt the familiar bite on his tongue and wilted like a too-long-kept flower turning brown and grisly on its petals’ edges. Head falling, his eyes opened; he saw a light steam of dust the wind and drought had managed to force even into this sanctuary, to assail its one priest: one god tormenting another’s devotee.

The farmer stumbled to the green veil marking the edge of protection and lay slumped over the wall of ivy. His weary eyes squinted in the brightness; and a bead of sweat formed on his forehead and fell to the ground. Like a slim, white hand, the realization of being again cheated squeezed at his throat; and the sweat was followed by one tear, then another. The smell of dry sun was heavy around him; and again he was faced with the brown, crusting, broken ground, and far beyond it, a peeling lead-white house melting into its foundations. He imagined the shag of green which should have carpeted his fields now, stirring slightly with the breeze; and compared that image to one of bankruptcy and starvation. Sweat mingled with tears until well past nightfall.

He stumbled up his porch steps, noticing for the first time the greyness of the sad wood beneath the brittle flakes of white. The door protested his entry, startling the farm wife out from some corner of the dim house.

“Where have you been?” Then she noticed his sweaty, streaked face.

“What happened?” She suddenly changed from accusation to concern.

He clasped her in quivering arms. As he held her, his numbness dissolved in a mocking knowledge of failure.

“Pray for rain.” He released her to make his way blindly up threadbare carpeted stairs to pass the rest of the night fitfully.

*****

Morning came with a haze like the dust of ages but did not wake the farmer. No rooster crowed. His wife’s eyes opened several hours later and fell first on him, bedraggled and still dusty from an unrefreshed evening. Fading-green eyes glistened as she cried—softly, not to wake this man, her only support and looking soon to break. Down the stairs, wearing them so slightly more, she entered the peeling daisied wall-paper of the kitchen.

As the smell of the last eggs slid up to the bedroom, the farmer began to rouse. His sleep-fevered mind made the choice between one more cloudless, hot, brown dream and this first pleasant sensation to meet it; and he awoke.

Making no more effort to ready himself than he had last night, he stepped irresolutely into the hallway. A green image in oils of his farm, framed in dusty, weatherbeaten pine, met him. A low moan.

After she had tried a conversation several times in her head, he entered the kitchen as if drunk.

Wordlessly she placed eggs and toast in front of him: round yellow suns smiling up at him, as the sun outside scorched his fields. He stared, at the eggs and at her.

“Why didn’t I wake up with the rooster?”

“You—I’m sure you just slept through it, dear. You had a bad day—a bad night, too.”

“No,” he said, rising. “No! There was no rooster.”

She grasped at him, “But of course there was!” pleading as much with herself. “We just— we—we didn’t hear it.”

They were in the yard now. He stalked to the coop and flung open the low-hung door.

“There!” he said angrily. “I told you it would start on the animals.” The rooster and seven hens were dead, slain by the invisible fox that had finally begun to prey.

A more and more familiar desperation parted chapped red lips; and she lost, in a strange moment, all will to live.

The drought had put all the hens off laying; so there really were no eggs left, and little other food. She brooded in the house all day while her husband tried in vain to pull something from the dry well. Towards evening he came inside.

“It’s no use,” he said, and had to watch her wilt a bit more.

*****

The next day, morning came hot; but the first time the defeated man stepped off his porch, a grey tinge coloured the sky, and his sweat-shined brow was hit by something colder than sweat. In disbelief he stood, while black cloud after black cloud rolled over the landscape—over his fields. The brown earth immediately turned as black as the sky with an ever-increasing tattoo of water drops upon it.

“Come quick! Come quick!” he shouted; but she had heard the rain and was already at his side. New tears misted her eyes, and she could say nothing. Far off, the bewitched forest shuddered; it had lost its pride now that it would no longer be the only green in a brown land.

The pleasant mist which filled the air softened all outlines and pulled the vicious dust from the air. For the first time in weeks, the air came welcomed to his nose, rather than as a fierce, biting devil. Flakes of white paint wrenched themselves free of the wood, and a shingle fell to the ground before the porch.

That evening, the farmer opened the cellar cupboard and brought out a gaily-wrapped box: her birthday present. He had bought it when the sign in the store window told him there was little time left before they were gone. He had intended to save it, to savour the taste of anticipation, to postpone the joy of seeing her face. He lost that resolve. Something like this happening—well, it occasioned something special.

That night, everything was a pleasure, down to the dishwashing with fresh boiled rainwater. They lay down with the cheerful patter of rain off over their heads, and rose with it.

*****

After two days, the rain had not stopped. She was becoming listless again, looking out at the still-dark sky. On the third day, the rain became a sprinkle. Five more days of sprinkling followed.

On day nine of the rain, the farmer went out to fetch water from the rain barrel. He was back inside before his wife had closed the door.

“That’s done it!” he called. “It’s growing! We’re not ruined!”

His wife, again rendered speechless, stood by his side and grasped his hand. All she could manage to say was a weak “oh . . . oh . . .” as she squeezed his hand tightly and gazed at the tiny flecks of green.

*****

The next day, the thumps on the farmhouse rooftop beat louder and faster. The two of them went to bed: fear in his mind, but merely a half-hearted and puzzled apprehension on hers.

The rainstorm grew in the night, and they were roused by the crash of a broken oak branch shattering their bedroom window. He stared through the worthless pane. He watched the wind-driven water clambering in, and then gasped. The green triumphant wood now stood as an island. From the farmhouse to the fields, and to the green fluttering ivy-skirt of the forest, stretched a flat plate of water, troubled by rain and broken variously by stumps and tiny islands. No bit of green showed in all the vast fields.

“Pray for rain.” His mouth slowly formed the tired words. He looked back at his wife. She finally finished the long wilting process as he looked into her eyes.

“I said pray for rain. We both prayed, didn’t we?” She dropped her gaze. He whirled back to face the sea. “Didn’t we both! We prayed and prayed for rain!” He gestured at the water in disgust.

He heard her whimper, frightened. He glared still at the drowned fields, but let his hands fall.

“Now —” He shook his head. The cheating hand again circled his throat, and he fell to the brown wet rug by the window sobbing. The wife looked on mutely.

“Ruined,” he said at last. “So close . . . so . . . close . . .”

Hot tears mingled with nature’s cold ones on the bedroom floor.

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