The Drought

by Nicole Cloutier
 

Sure enough, the rain came. The first drops didn’t stick—balling on the dirt like stones and filling the air with steam that clung to our skin. We waited. Our containers uncoiled down the street between our houses: buckets, pots, cups, vases, the neighbor’s flat-tired wheelbarrow. They had been out there for days, waiting on fissured dirt, collecting only dust.

But now heavy drops crashed past the dust, leaving dark, finger-tip craters in the dirt-covered street. Slowly, we made our way through our front doors and stood on splattered porches—breaths tangled in our throats.

The neighbor’s wife clutched her squirming child tightly against herself. Her husband stroked her cheek and she let go. The child ran and the other children followed. In the middle of the street, they opened their mouths to the sky.

The few chickens that had survived the thirst buried their beaks into the rivets of water, scratching the mud with their claws. The pigs rolled in it and the children began to do the same. No one had the heart to stop them, even though, in the backs of their minds, they worried about water for washing later—the clothes and the skin.

One by one, the old women piled their clothes on their porches and walked out into the street. The damp air soothed the cracks on the insides of our nostrils. The old women rubbed mud on their faces. Their white teeth glowed. Wet hair clung to the corners of their mouths.

The neighbor’s daughter carried an armful of dusty teacups into the rain and fed her dolls the coffee-colored water.

Our bones began to loosen and we followed the children and elders barefoot into the mud. Their bodies orbited the overflowing containers—songs drowned behind the pounding of water on tin.

 

Fathers and mothers corralled their children with bars of handmade soap. Catching them, they scrubbed their scalps into silver suds that streamed down the street, catching around the bases of copper pots and piling like frog eggs.

It continued throughout the night—moonlit waves reflecting upwards from the palimpsest street.

The children stayed up late, writing letters on paper and tossing them into the street’s current. Their parents tucked them into their beds but the force of rain was too much for the roofs. Water leaked in through the corners, sprawling brown circles across our ceilings. Parents and children alike stared up at them–watching the drips gather and fall.

By morning, the children cried and the containers floated down a river that came up to the neighbour’s waist.

Our porches had disappeared beneath the mud-stained water, and we started contemplating boats.

By midday, grandmother had drowned and we began pulling apart the houses with hammers and crowbars. The sofas were lost. The chairs were too wet to catch fire.

The neighbor shouted, and we grabbed what we could from our kitchens and yards, plucking fruit that floated out through our open windows, tucking squirming chickens in our armpits—their feathers soaked and translucent over string-thin necks.

We climbed into our crude-shaped houses-turned-boats and paddled our way down the rising road, watching the tops of the chimneys as they went by, red on brown.

The neighbor—who could no longer be called such—reached into the water with a net and pulled up shingles, chicken wire, a candlestick. We floated towards the city, shoveling the water from our boats with buckets and cupped hands, but when we arrived the city no longer existed. We drifted past the sharp point of a silver steeple and the shadows of things beneath it.

From across the great water, one mother wailed, and then another, as they counted the heads of missing children. The rest of us could not find what to say so we waited until dry throats quieted the sobbing. When we started drifting apart, the neighbor passed a rope and we each tied our raft to another.

Sometimes, things would float to the surface—the arm of a sofa, the face of a grandfather clock—and we would tie these into roofs, or bridges. We grew outwards—arms sprawling across the sea’s face.

Once the rain had stopped, the sun pulsed above us. We climbed under things. Someone called land! and then again frantically. Over and over until we all crawled from our hiding spaces—eyes squinting towards the jagged horizon.

The neighbor called a small group together and we hung our arms over each other’s shoulders. He said it all made sense and we nodded. Cloud-covered peaks burst from the swollen sea.

As we paddled towards the edge with flat-sided beams, the old women told the story of a giant sea turtle. She swam the world over until finally finding a place to safely empty her belly full of eggs into the sand.

Every night it rained, and every day the water surrounding us was so still we almost believed we could walk on it—jump from one spot of sun to the next until we reached the mountain peaks.

The neighbor’s daughter clutched the last chicken to her chest. She cried and buried her face into its bony back. Its beak hung open, panted breaths releasing past its flat tongue. With force, we pried her arms away, snapping the chicken’s neck before we meant it and the daughter silenced. We could not explain it was too close to death for eggs.

In our dreams there were dogs. The beasts lapped up the puddles from our streets with giant red tongues. They were shaggy dogs with long hair split into black and white patches across their backs. They left muddy paw-prints on our wooden floorboards, but we did not scold them. They rubbed their shedding backs against our legs and we were happy even though we knew it was not quite right.

Seeking a place to rest their tired wings, the birds landed on our rafts. We woke covered in their white waste while they crowded around each other. The neighbor put a finger to his lips and we all lay as still as we could manage. He lunged for them with desperate deftness and the birds flew off in all directions. One, smaller than the rest but unable to carry its own weight, flapped its wings two, three times and then plummeted into the sea.

It took us a moment, once the birds were gone, to notice the the neighbor’s wife’s stillness—her hair matted with salt and sun. Not knowing what else to do, we rolled her over the raft’s edge, only thinking twice after it was done. We watched her body sink slowly down—tinting green, blue, black. Deep in our guts we felt fresh pangs of sadness, and then hunger.

Every morning we woke to more missing—having rolled off in the night. We tied ourselves to the furniture.

The neighbor’s daughter retched into the sea. We pinched her skin and it didn’t snap back—just left tiny white mounds all over her body.

It was a wonder, we whispered, that she lived—her body small and shriveled and salted. With eyes half opened we watched her, curled against a doll’s molding head.

The mountains never came closer, though sometimes they shifted and began to glow a hazy green around their edges.

At night we watched the neighbor, believing us asleep, slink to his daughter’s side and press a slice of fruit to her muttering lips. The muscles in her throat bulged and contracted and our own sore throats remembered the feeling. The hatred seeped through the hot air between us.

Tiny black flies rose in waves when we opened the box hidden behind the face of the grandfather clock. In the space they had cleared was a horde of rotting food covered in a thick layer of fermented liquid that burned our nostrils. We stuffed what we could into our dry mouths even as our throats threatened to close around themselves.

The rusty kitchen knife sawed slowly through the rope—frayed ends catching droplets of water as they uncurled. We were quiet as it happened—bodies crouched together in one beastly mass, palms pressed against the damp wood, slouched towards the neighbor and his daughter curled together on the small, rotting raft.

We could see their sleeping bodies shiver, even as they drifted away—losing size and shape. We watched them go with countless eyes, and could swear we saw the neighbor’s silhouette rise against the sea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nicole Cloutier grew up on a small farm in rural Connecticut. She earned her MFA student at Sarah Lawrence College where she was the Editor in Chief of LUMINA. Now, she very happily writes tweets, among other things, at Praytell Strategy in Brooklyn.

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