Short story – here it is! Hopefully it all transferred…sorry it’s late but bike tour had something to do with it Comments/thoughts/ideas are appreciated!
For Bee. Happy (belated) birthday!
“She is too weak.”
“She is only a girl. What can I do with a girl? If you had given me a son, he would be strong. And he could help us make money.”
“Yes, but she needs food and medicine. Otherwise, she will die.”
“What she needs is rain! Tell her to go and bring the rain, and then I can make my money to buy those things.”
Nourata listened to her parents argue. She glanced at the dusty ground; indeed, the rains last year had been disappointing, barely enough for their corn and millet crops to sprout, and still only about half survived. This year, already one month into rainy season, the sky had opened only twice, and its constant sunny, cheerful gaze acted as painful mockery for the inhabitants of her small village.
“C’mon, you stupid sky,” she snarled under her breath, eyeing her great blue adversary. “Give us some rain. We need it. And she will die without it,” Nourata added, considering her father’s comments. Her eyes traveled over the uneven floor of their mud hut to her older sister, slumped on a mattress worn so thin it might as well have been the dirt that lay beneath. Her small body and shallow breathing indicated her acute level of exhaustion; she had returned home late yesterday from preparing the fields, after which she was expected to cook and clean for the family, a task which kept her awake far into the dark of the night. And today, she would rise early and do it all again.
Nourata turned from her perch at the hut’s entrance, giving the sky one last threatening glare before doing so, and clambered over to her sister. She ran her hand along the sleeping girl’s arm, which seemed too frail to her, and saw the little patches of hair that had fallen out in the night and embedded themselves in the mattress next to her head. They all needed food; of course, they were constantly hungry. But her mother had said medicine, too. What was her sister sick with? As she gazed at her sister’s drawn, slightly pale face, Nourata realized that she did look somewhat ill. Too gaunt, maybe. Suddenly, her sister’s eyes snapped open, and Nourata jerked her head up as her father came thundering back into the hut.
“Get- hey, what is she doing here? Bibata!” he shouted, calling to his wife. She came rushing in. “Here, look, she’s just crawling around again. Get her out of my way!” Obediently, Bibata hurried over and shooed Nourata back to the opposite corner of the room. Her sister began to sit up but he kicked her anyway. “Get up, you lazy cow. We have work to do and I cannot do it all by myself.” He turned to exit, and then with a last burst of fury he shouted, “I wanted a son!”
Her sister sprang out of bed and quickly threw on a pair of slacks and ripped shirt that said Miami Heat on it which lay next to her.
“Ami. Amiiiiii.” Nourata whispered, although her mother shushed her. Her sister turned two shining eyes on her.
“Hey, Nou! Maybe I can find you some flowers today,” she said, smiling gently.
“AMINATA!!!” They heard their father thunder from outside. She turned and rushed out after him, flashing her sister one last bright smile before parting.
Inside the hut, all was finally quiet. Nourata watched the muscles in her mother’s shoulders relax as the footsteps of her husband receded into the musky dawn.
“Mother, why can’t I go help in the fields? Then I could be with Ami and help the family make food.”
“Maybe next year. You are too young this year,” answered her mother, a note of exhaustion rising in her voice. “Here, lay down. I am going to start cleaning. Don’t get in my way,” she said, instructing Nourata onto the small, secluded mattress where she had spent the night. Nourata did as she was told, even closing her eyes to pretend that she might go back to sleep. Her mother swept the hut mechanically, indicative of the years of repetition and practice that guided her movements, and Nourata felt the dust swirl slightly around her toes. She knew that next her mother would have to go to the market to buy vegetables for the day’s meals, and so she kept her eyes closed, waiting to hear her mother’s footsteps disappear from the hut.
As soon as they did, Nourata opened her eyes and sprang to her feet. Maybe she had to wait until next year to help her sister in the fields, or to cook and clean, but she wasn’t going to let her die in the meantime. Her father had said that if it rained, the family would have money to buy food and medicine. So Nourata was going to find the rain.
Nourata tip-toed to the hut’s entrance and peeked around. She could see her mother growing smaller and smaller as she traversed the dusty footpath that would eventually lead to the market, a plastic bag hanging from one arm, in which she would return with a few nearly rotten onions and, depending on the day, maybe the bones of someone’s already cooked chicken. Nourata slipped around the hut and placed it between her and her mother. Turning, she glanced out across the fields of their neighbors, a few measly shoots protruding from the ground, twisting towards the heavens as if an extra five centimeters would help quench their thirst. In the distance, she could make out the forms of her neighbors, the father and his two sons. One, named Cheikh, was about her age, and they used to scamper in between huts and up into mango trees fighting invisible genies. That was before Cheikh’s father made him start helping in the fields, which took up all of his time during the rainy seasons. Nourata didn’t know why he could work and she couldn’t, when they were the same age; she reasoned that it had to do with his father wanting to teach his sons to grow up tough and strong, like he had.
She gazed at the clear blue sky.
“If I was rain,” she mused, “where would I be hiding?” The entirety of the heavens shone back at her the same color; there wasn’t a cloud in sight to be hiding behind. Huffing, she decided to simply pick a direction and go with it, so she turned and began heading away from her hut.
She had only marched for about half a kilometer when she tripped over a large rock that seemed to have sprung up from nowhere.
“Ouch…ugh,” she murmured, pulling herself onto her forearms. Looking back at her aggressor, she tasted blood, and touching her nose she realized she must have hit herself harder than she thought. She watched drops of deep maroon dribble onto the dust below her. As it collected, it formed a large, menacing puddle. And yet, she hadn’t moved her body, but the dust in the middle of the puddle seemed untouched. More than untouched, in fact. Oddly, it resembled an arrow. She squinted, and as she brought her face closer to study the surprising symbol the last drops of blood fell into place, and she found herself eyeing a perfectly formed arrow, pointing in a direction just to her right. Her gaze followed its path, and as she looked up, she noticed the sun glance off of something at an odd angle, creating a slight reflection. It was hard to see, but if she tilted her head at the right angle, she could just make out a ripple in the horizon, as if an invisible wall stood between her and the end of the earth. She reached out towards it, and touched a hard surface.
Immediately, as if it had simply been waiting for her touch, rays of sunlight were pulled into the frame of the wall, as if by a magnet, and raced around the odd shimmer in a rectangular shape. The light coursed and pulsed, quivering like a runner waiting for the gun, and as she watched wide-eyed Nourata saw a small orb thrust from inside the shimmer, like watching a tree’s growth over the course of several years condensed into seconds. Pulling herself to her feet, Nourata could still see her neighbor’s fields extending out beyond what had just arisen before her, but there was no mistaking its imagery now. It was a door.
Nourata eyed it suspiciously. She looked back, sideways. Was anyone else watching her? Had anybody else seen what happened? She was completely, utterly alone. All of her natural intuitions told her not to get closer, not to turn the knob. And yet, a strong, inexplicable urge emanated out of her, from a place deep inside, that told her, begged her, desperately, to approach. To turn the knob. To step inside.
She looked back, realizing that she had been unconsciously overpowered by her greater desires, and was already across the threshold. The door slowly closed behind her, and in a moment of panic, she scrambled to find a rock, something, to block the door’s motion. Her eyes desperately scanned the field around her and her hands scrabbled frantically at the dirt, but she found nothing. She turned and rushed at the door just as it sealed shut, the light once again racing around its perimeter, this time erasing its border as it passed.
“No!” Nourata balled her hands into fists and banged against the invisible wall, but as the light finished its course and disappeared into the earth, her momentum threw her forward and she fell into the dirt on the other side. The door had vanished, sealing off the dry fields of her neighbors and replacing her surroundings with those of another land. She stood and raised a trembling hand to where the door had just been. “Ami?” The name escaped her lips in a frightened whisper.
She walked across the threshold once again, thinking it might carry her back home, but nothing. Nourata threw herself onto the ground, even knocking her nose as she fell again, but to no avail. No blood, no arrow, no door. Her breathing quickened, and tears rushed to her eyes as she realized she was lost, and didn’t know how to find her way home.
A shadow passed along the ground before her, and she glanced up to see a cloud lazily making its way across the sky. Suddenly, Nourata remembered why she had left her home in the first place. She scrambled to her feet and looked more closely at the passing cloud; it looked dark, heavy, like it was full of water. Her world might not have any rain, she realized, but maybe this one does, and here she could find help for her sister. Gritting her teeth, she surveyed her surroundings.
Ahead of her lay a vast green field, lush and blooming with grasses and flowers. Surely, rain had been here. Just beyond the field loomed the largest tree Nourata had ever seen. Its trunk was thick, far thicker than the biggest baobab she’d ever seen at home, and its gnarled bark twisted and turned its way into the sky, where she could only barely make out the distant green of what promised to be substantial foliage. At the base of the tree sat a squat building made out of material Nourata had never seen before. In fact, it seemed to be built into the tree itself.
She crossed the field and stood before it, examining. Its exterior was simple; just bark, but it was a deep brown color, darker than any of the trees near her family’s house. A simple door was flanked by two small windows that looked out onto the field like a tiny pair of eyes. Glancing behind her again, Nourata saw that the field stretched out all around her, as far as she could see in every direction. The tree was the only structure for kilometers, it seemed, so she turned the knob in front of her.
As she closed the door behind her, Nourata stepped into complete serenity. Inside, the bark transformed from one uniform color into a multitude of veins, each a different shade of brown, which twisted, ducked, and leapt from wall to wall, as if in a dance. To the left of the room was situated the most beautiful staircase Nourata had ever seen, made from wood but flanked by leaves and berries as it spiraled up the tree trunk as far as she could see. At the center of the room, which was surprisingly large, sat a sturdy looking structure, perhaps the cutout of another tree’s trunk, inside which four women sat busy with paperwork. They looked up as Nourata approached them.
“Hello there,” the first woman said, warmly gazing down from her perch. “How are you doing?”
“I’m fine,” Nourata answered. The woman nodded.
“Okay, then. How about we find you a room. You don’t have any bags?” Nourata shook her head.
“Excuse me, I’m looking for the rain,” she said, stating her case clearly. The woman looked up at her again from a small machine on which she had been hitting buttons.
“I’m sorry, what did you say?” she asked, pulling a pair of spectacles further down her nose, so that they were in danger of falling off.
“I’m here to find the rain,” Nourata said again. “My sister is sick and my father said that she’ll only get better if the rain comes, so I’m here to find it and bring it home.” The congenial woman’s eyes narrowed, bringing her face to a small point at the end of her nose.
“Girl, do you know where you are?” she asked. Nourata shook her head and the woman sighed, pulling off her glasses completely and leaning back to massage the bridge of her nose. “Ramata!” she called. “Ramata! I think you’d better handle this, seeing as nobody tells me anything in this place.” As she spoke, a large woman sitting behind the tree desk squeaked and spun around in her chair. In her excitement she jumped up, forgetting that the chair’s arms held her snugly, causing her to fall back into her seat and scoot backward several feet in the chair’s rollers.
“Oh!” she exclaimed, this time taking a moment to disengage her fairly hefty posterior before lifting herself out of the seat and bustling over to stand next to her colleague.
“Okay Etty, I’ll take care of this one!” she said, turning a set of beaming eyes on Nourata. “We’ve been waiting for you.” Etty rolled her eyes and threw her hands into the air in despair.
“As if it would have been so much harder to tell me this,” she grumbled, rolling away in her chair. “I’ve only worked here half a lifetime, but no, it obviously makes more sense to give the sensitive information to the new girl…” Ramata pulled Nourata out of earshot.
“I have a few things for you, but first, let’s find you a room, just in case. That way you’ll have a place to set up.”
Ramata led Nourata up the staircase, which was even more exquisite up close. Nourata watched as berries bloomed fresh before her eyes and grasshoppers flitted from leaf to leaf. It seemed they had only been climbing for a short time when Ramata turned off of the staircase onto a balcony, also made of wood, which was lined with numbered rooms.
“Yes, we didn’t want to put you up too high, in case you plan on coming and going a lot,” she said over her shoulder, as if reading Nourata’s mind. She fumbled in her pockets for a pair of keys and finally reached out to unlock the door to No. 23.
They stepped inside and Nourata immediately gasped. It was the nicest room she had ever been in. A large, luxurious mattress with fluffy pillows lay sprawled in the middle of the room. A small room off to the side housed two large barrels of water, simply labeled “WARM” and “COOL.”
“You can clean up in here,” Ramata said, pointing out a tiny bucket that she could dip into the water temperature of her choice and use to shower herself. “And here is a toilet,” she said, gesturing towards a large porcelain bowl that Nourata was supposed to sit in; she eyed it suspiciously, having heard of such devices but never having used one. “Or, if it makes you more comfortable, you can use this,” said Ramata, pointing to a familiar looking hole in the ground in the far corner. “Don’t worry,” she whispered covertly, “it leads outside,” and chuckled. Escorting her out of the small room, Ramata walked over to a large dresser sitting against the wall. “And in here, we have several sets of clothes laid out for you. You can wear anything you like!” As she said this, she opened a drawer and Nourata immediately had to squint because the light reflecting off of a million little golden tassels and beads was too strong.
“Oh!” she squealed, running her hands over the shimmering outfits. Ramata smiled.
“Okay, lastly, here is the view from your room,” she said, pulling aside a curtain Nourata hadn’t noticed before to expose a large window that looked out over the endless fields. She turned and faced Nourata. “It usually rains once or twice a day, but you can’t catch it here; it moves too fast. Take this,” she said, reaching into another pocket and pulling out a sheet of parchment. “It’s a map. It tells you where you can find the rain, but it’s difficult to get to.” She looked hard at Nourata as she took the map. “You know, nobody’s ever been successful in catching the rain before.” Nourata shrugged.
“I don’t have a choice,” she said, thinking of her sister. Ramata nodded.
“Okay, then. I’ll leave you here,” she said, turning to go. “Oh, one last thing. Because you’re so young, whenever you fall asleep while you’re here, you’ll return home. Don’t worry,” she said, chuckling when she saw the discouragement on Nourata’s face. “You won’t actually be going anywhere; you’ll still be able to touch and feel whatever is around you, like these bed sheets. But you can see your family and they can see you, so they know that you’re safe. Okay, then…good luck,” she stated, pausing in the doorway to bestow a sympathetic smile on the girl before turning on her heel and exiting the room.
Nourata stared at the door for several minutes after it closed. Finally, she looked down at the paper clutched tightly in her hand. It had been folded several times, so when she opened it fully she had to lay it down on the bed to see all of it. The intricacy of the map surprised her. To the left she recognized the great tree in which she was housed; even its upper limbs disappeared off of the top of the paper. Its commanding trunk lay surrounded by fields, which she confirmed by glancing out her window. Neat rivets in the ground with tiny shoots protruding from them were all she could see. Following these appeared a vast barren region, labeled as a desert. Nourata didn’t spend much time on this part of the map, figuring it must be like home. Her eyes drifted to what followed. A large forest of trees with strong, dark trunks and shimmering green foliage appeared to be swaying to and fro in some unseen gale of wind. But more interesting were the shadowy figures shown flitting in between the leaves and the trunks. They leaped and soared, with powerful beats of their strong wings; one was even drawn looking up at her, hissing and glaring with fiery eyes. Nourata had never seen anything like them before, but she set her jaw and moved on, knowing she didn’t have a choice. Past the forest and the animals sat an ocean moat surrounding a craggy island on which the waves crashed and foamed. Atop the island rested a fat, dark cloud, its eyes closed in slumber; the island was labeled “Home.”
Shortly after the portly woman had left her room, Nourata had departed as well. She did, however, linger for a few moments, laying back and running her hands along the clean cotton sheets that enclosed the luxurious bed, noting sadly that she probably wouldn’t return there until after her quest had been completed. Unless that bed wanted to magically travel with her as well, she didn’t see any way of making it back to sleep in it every night.
As Nourata reached the edge of the fields of crops surrounding the massive tree, she glanced back and noticed that the shade from its foliage nearly reached the spot where she stood, even though she had been walking for over an hour. In front of her stretched an endless sea of sand dunes; it wasn’t like home, where it was hot, flat, and dusty, but inhabitable. This was real desert. She had seen pictures of some of the ethnic groups north of them that rode camels and wore scarves to cover their heads and mouths when they journeyed through the desert. Unfortunately, Nourata had neither a camel nor a scarf. She glanced back at the large tree looming behind her. She could probably walk back and ask for something to cover her head with, but it would add at least two hours to her journey to go and return again. And she wasn’t sure how much time she had. Determinedly, she stuck her foot out into the waiting sand and pushed forward, refusing to look back again.
The small granules collected and closed around her feet as she trudged. She felt the sun, scorching, burning down upon her small back as she walked. She’d been exposed to the sun at home before, often on days she spent running and climbing with Cheikh, but it had never been like this. She felt the heat on her back and the top of her head begin to spread to other parts of her body, as if in fact she had caught on fire. The skin on her forearms, her chest, even her face began to flush and overheat, to smart, even. She searched desperately around her for something to block the sun, or for some shelter to find a break from its heat, but she saw nothing. Nothing but sand.
Nourata had no choice but to keep going. She felt so tired; she wished she could lie down, just for a minute, and rest, but she knew that doing so would give the sun an even greater chance to burn her little body. She had to keep moving. She was also incredibly thirsty, and had no way of knowing if she had been walking straight, as she had hoped, or moving in circles, and had effectively doomed herself to wander the desert until she collapsed. Frankly, she already felt on the verge of doing so. But in her mind she conjured up images of her sister; her sister picking her a fresh flower she found growing out of a tree near their house, or smuggling back the fattest mango she had picked from their one mango tree. The mangoes were all supposed to be sold at the market, but every now and then Aminata snuck one out for her. She saw her sister protecting her from her father’s rage, telling him it was she who had knocked over the jug of water, not Nourata, and then getting slapped so hard by her father that Nourata could still see the outline of his fingers on her face three days later. She breathed in deeply, summoning all of the strength and courage she had left. Her body was burning, she could feel it, but she pressed on. Just one more sand dune. Just one more.
Suddenly, she caught sight of a large shadow passing over head and glanced up. She saw clouds, dark and heavy, racing through the skies above her head.
“Wait!” she called, but they were moving too quickly. But seeing them renewed her vigor, and she began to run, following them as they sped forward. They flew above her head but she kept moving; maybe she could actually catch a raincloud. She stumbled forward, every nerve ending in her body buzzing from the heat and dehydration. The clouds all began blending into one, and she thought that they might get away from her when she staggered up one last dune and lost her footing at the pinnacle, causing her to somersault forward and slide down the dune’s other side.
Judging that she might not be able to lift her head up from the sand one last time, Nourata closed her eyes and felt her other senses push forward, jockeying for the lead, and she suddenly realized that her head wasn’t lying in sand. Instead, she felt the rough slime of recently-muddied dirt slide across her cheek, and her hand reached out and clenched a patch of moss to her right. She pulled herself into a sitting position and gazed about herself; to her left, she saw the stretch of desert extend as far as she could see. To her right, an immense forest of trees shaded the underbrush. Vividly colored flowers sprouted out amongst dewy leaves, and a shadowy path snaking into the dense wood beckoned her. She wanted to move forward, but her parched muscles wouldn’t allow it. Rolling onto her back, she wished for some kind of relief, some kind of new strength to help her along. Gradually, she watched the dark clouds that she had chased collect above her, as if returning from their mission to gather over a fallen friend. She closed her eyes and felt large, cool drops begin splashing down on her face, on her burning body, and she drifted away in its refreshing embrace.
“Ami….?” Nourata whispered, dazed. Her sister’s face hovered above her, her eyes large and glistening. A smile worked its way across her face when she heard her name.
“Hey there, Nou,” she whispered back, wiping her eyes quickly and glancing around the room. It was clearly late at night, and their parents were sleeping.
“What are you doing here?” Nourata asked, afraid that either her sister had been forced to cross the desert to find her, or her mission had failed completely and she’d been returned home. The side of her sister’s mouth twisted up into a grin.
“I live here, silly, remember?” she said, reaching out and stroking Nourata’s hair. With a sudden flash of relief, Nourata remembered what the woman had said, that she would be both at home and in the other world when she slept so as to see her family. To double check, she slid her arm sideways and felt the slick rub of heavy mud, not the roof thatching on which she normally slept. She looked up at her sister.
“I’m going to make you all better, Ami. I’m going to find it, I promise. And then you won’t be sick anymore.” Aminata raised an eyebrow in confusion, and then let it fall in resignation.
“I know you will, Nou,” she said, taking her sister’s hand. “I believe in you.” Nourata beamed up at her, but her sister still looked sad. She opened her mouth to reassure her that she could find the rain but her sister shushed her, looking back at their parents. She reached behind her and removed something she had tucked into the back of her waistline and placed it gently in Nourata’s hand, which she had never let go of.
“Here you go, Nou. I found it while I was out in the fields. Isn’t it beautiful?” As she moved Nourata’s hand up to her chest, she gazed down at the loveliest flower she had ever seen. Brilliant shades of blue and yellow intermingled so intricately that they appeared to be dancing around each other, each taking turns twirling the other up and down the petal. In the dusky shades of the early morning, it appeared like a private showcase that only she and her sister were allowed to see.
Nourata’s eyes snapped open. She looked around herself, felt the mud, now drying, and gazed back upon the endless sea of sand dunes she had already crossed. She had returned. With a new resolve she pulled herself to her feet and surveyed the forest that lay ahead. It seemed to be doing the same to her. It had only one entrance that she could make out, a dark, cavernous mouth that coiled away from view almost immediately. Vines twisted from tree to tree, and she could hear the chirping of various unknown species of animals that lived inside.
She supposed she ought to be scared, but resolve and determination pushed her forward. She climbed to her feet and took several confident steps towards the forest’s edge. As she entered the shadow cast by the trees, however, she felt a shiver creep up her spine. She looked into the forest and saw nothing, only blackness. Stepping further, she felt the darkness gradually seeping into her bones, until she found herself shivering. But, she knew that turning back meant death for her sister, and that was not an option.
She followed the course of the path that led away from the entrance; it ran like a river, constantly switching directions, yet indecisively, as it seemed to choose its route as she walked it. Rounding a bend, she gazed down a straight path, resolute as far as she could see. But, hearing a noise, she looked up, and when she turned back to the trail it banked sharp right after about twenty paces. She shook her head, wondering if she simply hadn’t seen it before, or if she really was losing her mind.
The beauty of the forest and its inhabitants helped assuage her fears, however. The vast canopy above her provided shade for a lush undergrowth; felled tree trunks leaned their massive weight against one another, while moss as thick as the carpet in her room nestled atop their broad structures. Brightly colored flowers of variant shapes and sizes decorated the floor, some peeking out of large vines that twisted their way far above her head, others content to tickle her feet as she walked. She stopped at one point to examine the brilliant colors of a chameleon wandering his way along a tree trunk, who turned to gaze at her quizzically as she placed her face close to the intense purples and oranges swirled along his back.
As she rounded the next bend in the path, however, she sensed that the ecosystem had changed. Suddenly, she could no longer spot the dazzling colors of insects or lizards scurrying along the forest floor, and the high chirping of small finches had stopped. The flowers faded and the vines, twisting and snaking their way into the great awning above closed in on the path, so that it became barely passable. She had to pick her way through overgrown shrubs and muddied puddles left by the rainclouds when they had swept through, sometimes hopping from rock to rock in an attempt to spare her bare feet.
A small stream appeared and her route aligned itself so as to accompany it. Moving forward, she could glance down and see a few large, dull-colored fish swimming lazily through the dirty water next to her. They carried with them none of the energy she had seen in the forest’s previous inhabitants, and she had half a mind to stop and ask them why things had changed when she looked forward and saw a great bird standing motionless, silent, in the water. It kept its eyes down, no doubt scanning for unsuspecting fish like she had just seen. They would be within his reach any second. Time seemed to freeze as she watched the massive bird, its vivid colors, massive wings folded back behind it, muscular legs frozen in place, and eyes that seemed to burn with intensity as the predator waited for its prey. Or was it hatred?
She hadn’t realized she had been leaning against a low-lying branch for support until it cracked, throwing her off balance and sending her foot splashing into the water as she caught herself. It took her only a moment to regain her composure, but it was too late; the fish heard her tumble and jetted off into a million different directions, and as she glanced up, she stared right into the blazing eyes of the hunter, now angrier and hungrier.
She turned to run but it was much faster than she, and immediately a strong blow to her back knocked her on her stomach. She looked up but couldn’t see the bird, so she pulled herself to her feet again and dashed away. Before she had gotten several steps it appeared again, so fast that she could see no more than the blur of its colors, and she felt its powerful talons slash at her face before it disappeared again. She kept running, but put a hand up to her cheek and felt three long gashes stretching from her temple to her jawline, and when she pulled away her hand was covered in blood.
As if sensing the urgency of the situation, dark clouds rushed overhead and rain began to fall harshly on her back as she ran. She didn’t dare stop to look for her aggressor again, lest he take the opportunity to strike her down. Through the sheeting rain she heard his cry, a high-pitched shriek, almost like the scream of a goat being slaughtered. The swoop of its giant wings sounded just behind her and she felt its claws rake deeply into her back. She cried out in agony and stumbled to her knees, and as she regained her feet she chanced to glance up at the sky and saw them circling. Not just the one that had seen her, but ten, twenty of them had gathered under the clouds above her to scream out support for their friend. One dove at her as she looked up and swiped away the arm she put up to protect her head, knocking her to the ground once more. The rain quickly washed out the talon marks and she could see, as her face lay in the mud next to her arm, that it was bleeding profusely.
She got back to her feet once more and stumbled forward, but her head felt muddled and her reflexes dulled from the loss of blood. She tripped on a root and went down again just as another bird tore into her shoulder. Nourata yelped in pain and searched around for something to defend herself with but found nothing, and as she grimly began thinking that she might not escape these birds she heard a thunderous sound crashing through the foliage behind her. Barely having the strength to turn and look, she forced herself up on one elbow and squinted her eyes against the rain as a scraggly-haired beast appeared on the path behind her, bellowing ferociously to announce its arrival. The squawking and screeching of the birds intensified and reached a new pitch, but the animal seemed undaunted, roaring over and over again.
She couldn’t quite make out what exactly it was; it looked like a dog, just as skinny and malnourished as those that lived in her community, but of a larger stature. As she gazed at it in confusion it looked at her, locking a pair of morose, honey-brown eyes upon hers. They held one another’s stare for a moment, but then as the next bird dove at Nourata it reached up with a great big paw and batted it out of the sky. This seemed to enrage the others, and they coordinated their efforts, swooping down in teams to rake at the animal’s skin. Nourata looked about frantically and saw an area sheltered by several bushes and small trees with intertwining branches, so she quickly crawled over and wedged herself beneath the undergrowth. Looking back, she watched the birds attack the animal that had come to her rescue; to her surprise the creature did little to fight back or rebuke the birds’ attacks. Time after time they rained down upon it, opening up large patches of exposed muscle, until the beast could no longer stand on its own for loss of blood. It fell to its knees, and finally onto its stomach. Nourata watched it close its eyes against the onslaught until her own vision blurred from tears and wooziness.
“Shhh, shhh,” she heard someone whisper as she began to whimper, the cold touch of a wet compress sending shooting pains throughout her face and shoulder. She didn’t dare open her eyes to look for the blood.
“You’re okay, Nou, it just stings a little, I know.” Hearing the familiar voice of her sister, Nourata relaxed somewhat. She hadn’t realized that her family would be able to see her wounds while she slept, but she found herself grateful as she felt a soothing compress of leaves and tree oil placed carefully against her gashes by her sister’s gentle hands.
“I’m so close Ami,” Nourata murmured, still dizzy from blood loss. “I just need to get out of the forest.” Aminata shushed her again.
“You will, Nou. I believe in you.”
Nourata blinked. Slowly, foggily at first, colors and shapes began coming into focus. A small, green frond drooping under the weight of fresh rainwater hovered anxiously above her nose, as if checking for signs of life. She squinted her eyes and stared hard at it, until the water droplet quivering dangerously close to its edge gave one last tremble and leapt off onto her cheek, sending the young frond springing back from the loss of mass.
She reached up to wipe the water from herself, then gently moved her hand across her face to where the bird had struck her. Three large welts and a constant throbbing confirmed that the attack had actually happened, but she removed her hand to see that the blood had stopped running.
Nourata held her breath and listened, but the forest was deadly silent. Turning her head, she looked back at where the attack had taken place. Aside from a few claw marks in the wet dirt nearby, it looked as if nothing had happened. Both the birds and the mystery beast were gone. Gingerly, she slid out from her hiding place and pulled herself into a sitting position. She eyed the sky warily, lest the birds be simply sitting in the trees, out of sight, waiting for her arousal. But still she saw nothing.
Climbing to her feet, she continued down the path in the direction she had been headed. The loss of blood made it difficult to walk straight, and every step heralded agonizing pains in her shoulder, back, and jaw. Groaning, she pulled herself along, urging herself to take one more step. One more step.
Suddenly, she heard the unmistakable rush of water. Not like the small stream where she had encountered the fish, but great thundering crashes of waves against rock. They had no ocean at home, but every one of her instincts told her it had to be the sound of the water from the last leg of the map, the sea. And that meant that the small island where the rain lived wasn’t far away.
Coaxing her body into a limping trot, Nourata rounded the last bend in the forest path and emerged onto a rocky beach. Powerful waves hurled themselves against large boulders resting at the waters’ edge, and the ocean seemed to stretch for as far as she could see in every direction, save for behind her. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.
On the horizon, sitting far out into the great watery expanse, she could just make out the figure of a large rock structure, which she knew must be her destination. She started towards the waterline closest to her but quickly realized that she couldn’t enter at that spot. The waves crashed against the rocks so ferociously that they sent spray leaping up above her head, and looking down she could see tiny whirlpools created in their wake, swirling and churning rapidly in tight spirals. Frustrated, she looked about in both directions, but the coastline seemed the same either way. She had no choice but to arbitrarily choose a direction and pick her way along the rocks in the hopes of finding a gentler spot to enter.
After what felt like an eternity of stumbling and tripping over jagged rocks amidst the shooting pains racking her small body, Nourata noticed a spot along the shoreline that might fit her needs. The rocks near the edge were much more rounded, and water lapped over them at a moderate pace. She made her way over to it and gazed down into the depths. Below the calm surface, the water became ferocious, roiling and tossing upon itself like water boiling on the stove. She sighed, sliding into a sitting position as her spirit faltered. She looked around and saw nothing but rough waves hurtling against sharp rocks in every direction, and suddenly tears sprang to her eyes in a fit of frustration and pain. Was this it? She had made it all this way simply to be defeated by a large body of water? And her sister?
Her sister. The thought conjured up more images from their lives together, images of her laughing while she braided Nourata’s hair, and holding hands while they shared a mat at night. Images of Aminata standing and taking scoldings from their mother for burning the rice, or running determinedly after their father to help in the fields, even though he never acknowledged her hard work. In her short lifetime, Nourata realized, the most happiness she had known existed in fleeting interactions with her sister: a quick squeeze of her hand, sharing a mango in secret behind their hut, curling into her body, skinny but firm, to shield against the cold rains. Her sister was brave and strong; she wouldn’t hesitate to face the ocean’s powerful currents to save someone. Didn’t Nourata owe her the same?
Without a second thought, Nourata waded into the water. She was going to save her sister. Almost immediately, the undercurrent swept her feet out from under her and dragged her into deeper waters. Swimming, she realized, was harder than it looked, and she could barely muster the strength to thrust her head above the dark, swirling waters long enough to fill her lungs before they pulled her down again. Up and down she bobbed, and amidst the turmoil she could make out the sea’s ultimate quest: the current was circling around to build up enough speed to make another run at the rocks. The pace of the water around her quickened as it began its rotation towards the shoreline. Spluttering, flailing, Nourata had barely enough time to breathe at intervals, let alone decide on how to save her life. She was at the mercy of the ocean, whose goals did not include sparing her life.
Frantically, she looked down, grasping about for something to anchor her, but the speed at which she was now moving was too great for any reed to stop. Suddenly, a flash occurred to her right, and as she squinted her eyes against the ocean water she could make out a large figure next to her. It kept pace with her, and as the ocean tossed her she found herself studying another pattern of vibrant blues and yellows swirling and leaping across a series of scales. The gigantic fish turned its head slightly, but just enough, to set a pair of large, questioning orbs upon her. It held the gaze, and Nourata instinctively reached out and grabbed the sizeable fin directing its movements from atop its lithe body. As quick as a bullet, the fish darted right, out of the Jetstream that had been holding them and began swimming furiously against the current. Every now and then it would surface just enough for Nourata to take a large gulp of air before diving again to fight the tow. Nourata could see that it was tiring, but it never stopped, and every time they surfaced the craggy island home of the rain loomed closer and closer.
Finally, they slowed, and the current seemed to have relented. The fish swam at an easy pace as they approached the rocky fortress, finally coming to a halt in the shallows. Nourata found herself on her hands and knees in a bed of pebbles, the water leisurely lapping against her thighs and elbows as she took a moment to catch her breath. The fish hovered nearby, watching her, a look of concern in its eyes. She glanced back reassuringly, and was still fighting for the breath to say something thankful when it promptly turned and shot back into the depths from which they had emerged.
Nourata sat, panting in the shallows, looking at the spot where the fish had been. She had no explanation for its actions, and she couldn’t help wondering what she had done to earn its assistance. First, the giant beast in the forest, and now the fish; she would never have made it to this spot without them.
Her thoughts would have continued down this path if the sky above her had not darkened, the waves around her begun to foam and churn, and a light mist started falling on her upturned face. She scurried about halfway up the island’s incline and ducked into a small cave so as not to be seen as rainclouds raced from every direction to gather atop the island’s highest point. She could hear them murmuring and groaning to one another, jockeying for a position to sleep.
She waited quietly in the cave until she heard the only restful silence above her, and then she slipped out to find footing and begin her ascent. The climb was tricky, but luckily not too challenging, as the pain in her shoulder and back had returned. After several minutes she crested the peak, first just pulling her head above the rocks to look around. She could see the rainclouds, all huddled together in one dark mass, hovering several feet off the ground as they slept. A light mist fell from them in their slumber and blew gently against Nourata’s face.
She stood frozen, watching the clouds, unsure of her next move. She realized that she had been so focused on her journey to get to this point that she had never actually thought about how she would get the rain and bring it back home. Maybe if it were smaller she could try to take it while the clouds slept and carry it, but it was not small. In fact, the rain seemed inseparable from the clouds in which it incubated, and to somehow catch one of those clouds and bring it home, back through the myriad of challenges she had already faced in the sea and the forest, without making enough noise to wake the other clouds, who might try to steal back their comrade and could cover ground at far more than double her speed, seemed an impossible task to Nourata.
She pulled herself over the edge and slumped against the rock in frustration and defeat. What had she been thinking? She had not anticipated the problem of bringing the raincloud back, and so her journey had all been in vain. How could she return empty-handed? And what would she tell her sister, whose life depended on her success?
The misting from the sleeping clouds increased, and Nourata reached up to clean it from her face when she realized that it wasn’t mist at all, but tears, large and heavy, dripping down her cheeks. Instead of wiping them away, she buried her face in her hands as powerful sobs racked her tiny body. She surrendered herself to the anger and frustration and sadness that had grown in her throughout the voyage, refusing to fight as it engulfed her entirely, an action that seemed fitting given how helpless she had turned out to be.
“Ahem…ahem.” Nourata froze. She had lost track of time, and had no idea how long she had been sitting beside the sleeping clouds. Sniffling, she slowly disentangled her head from her arms and poked one eye above them, scouting. A perturbed glare met her gaze; all the other clouds seemed not to have noticed her, lost in their slumber, but the one closest to Nourata sat staring back at her, a raised eyebrow demanding an explanation.
Quickly wiping the remaining tears from her eyes, Nourata straightened up and looked back at the cloud.
“Umm…hello,” she tried, but the cloud simply rolled its eyes and huffed loudly.
“Oh, lord, what on earth are you doing here? And why are you crying like that? Can’t you see we’re trying to sleep?”
“Oh, yes, I’m sorry, it’s just-”
“How many kilometers do you cover in a day, hmm? One? Two? I bet it’s not two hundred, like I do. You think that’s easy, racing all over the world like that?”
“No, I’m sure it’s not, but-”
“And all I get is one hour back here to sleep and recharge. One hour! But not today. And why not? Because there’s a little girl crying where I’m trying to sleep, and it’s keeping me awake.”
“I’m very sorry, I-”
“And really, you should be ashamed of yourself for keeping me awake like that. I’m the reason your flowers grow, the reason you have food to eat every day – I give life to the world! It’s because of me-”
“Not where I’m from!” Nourata cried, her eyes narrowing.
“Excuse me?” the cloud asked.
“You don’t rain where I come from,” she said. “That’s why I’m here. Maybe you’re so great and important and you cover hundreds of kilometers every day, but you forgot someplace.”
“Well I-! You must be mistaken silly girl, it rains everywhere in the world. In fact, I just got back from-”
“You forgot us!” Nourata shouted, taking the offensive. “You can’t say you make flowers grow, or you put food on the table, or you give life, because where I’m from you’re the reason nothing grows and people are dying. Because you forgot us! You may rain everywhere else in the world, but in the places that you miss, people die. Like my sister.” A look of guilt and remorse slowly replaced the annoyance in the cloud’s eyes.
“Your sister died…because of me?” it asked, its tone softening.
“Not yet,” Nourata said, shaking her head, “but she will. She is sick, and my father said that the only way she will get better is if the rain comes, but it hasn’t for many weeks. If you don’t come, she will die. That’s why I came here, to find the rain and bring it back with me.” Nourata looked hard at the ground, studying a small ant mounting a rock several times its size. “Please,” she whispered, “please don’t let her die; she is the best thing in my life. She protects me and brings me flowers and keeps me warm when it’s cold. She always makes me happy when I see her, always. She loves me, and I love her. Please.”
The cloud watched her studying the sand, trying hard to regain her composure. “Okay,” it said gently, causing her to look up in bewilderment. “Okay, I won’t forget you anymore, I promise, I’ll go there today.” A smile crossed Nourata’s face.
“Really?” she asked, her eyes beaming.
“Really,” said the cloud. “Besides, it’s not every day we get visitors here,” it added, gazing over the rough ocean towards the forest. “You must have had a very difficult journey to get here, and anyone important enough to motivate you to come all this way must be worth helping.”
“Thank you,” said Nourata, sighing. “Thank you so much.” She slumped back against the rock, the fatigue of her trip hitting her suddenly, replacing her worries. The cloud studied her more closely.
“You know, you look exhausted. Rightly so, as like I said, getting here is not easy. Why don’t you lie down and sleep for a while before you go back? Then maybe we can both get some sleep,” it added with a chuckle. Nourata nodded.
“That might be a good idea. I’ll just…thank you again,” she murmured, lying down on a bed of grasses growing through the rock. No sooner had she closed her eyes than the dark curtains of sleep closed over her.
Nourata blinked, slowly regaining her consciousness. Her head still felt fuzzy from sleep, as if thoughts were trying to force their way through her head like sludge in a sewer. The sun beat down on her brightly, and as she began to move her hands and arms she felt a lumpy, dusty surface below her and the half-formed shoots of plants too thirsty to live.
“Nou? Nou!” she heard a voice exclaim, her sister’s voice.
“Ami?” she asked, puzzled. “Ami, where are we?”
“I’m so sorry, Nou. I’m so sorry,” she heard her sister sobbing, and as her vision cleared she saw her sister wipe away a tear and lean over her. Except it wasn’t her sister. It couldn’t be. The girl bending over her looked deformed; deep bruises etched themselves over her face and neck, and enormous gashes carved into the skin on her cheeks and arms. As she turned to retrieve something behind her, Nourata could see that the skin on her right shoulder blade had been assaulted so badly that the underlying muscle was exposed, reminding her of Cheikh’s skinny dog after he lost a fight. The girl turned back and handed her a bright red flower.
“I found this for you, on the way,” she said, sniffling. Nourata took it, breathing deeply, afraid to look back at her sister.
“Ami…what happened? What happened to you?” She heard her sister sigh.
“Father…he, he thought you knocked over a pot of soup on the fire.” As she spoke, Aminata reached down and tenderly touched a raised patch of skin on Nourata’s cheek; she felt a sudden flash of pain. “It’s okay,” her sister whispered soothingly as Nourata squirmed.
“I don’t understand,” said Nourata. “If he thought I knocked it over, why are you hurt?” Aminata smiled down at her sister. “It’s okay, Nou, it’s not important right now.” Nourata looked up at her sister to protest, but Aminata shook her head, and the look of heartbreak that stole into her sister’s eyes stopped her. Infused with anguish, they turned a familiar honey-brown, and Nourata caught her breath although she struggled to remember where she had last seen those eyes.
Nourata’s gaze fell to her sister’s blouse; in stark contrast to the normal loose t-shirts that her sister normally wore, brown and faded from dirt and sweat, she found herself gazing in delight at a nicely cut top with a few frills around the neckline. The most remarkable part of the outfit was the color, however, and Nourata’s gaze followed the bright blues and yellows as they dove and bounded amongst one another, dancing their way around the shirt in a large swirling pattern. Aminata followed her sister’s stare.
“I wanted to look my best for you, Nou,” she said, her voice cracking as her eyes moistened. Nourata looked back up at her sister, and then around them, realizing she had forgotten to account for their surroundings.
“Ami, where are we?” she asked, concluding that they were actually in a field. Aminata exhaled abruptly, impending tears threatening to force her throat closed.
“I…I didn’t know what else to do, Nou. I asked father to take you to the clinic, but he said no. And then I asked that he let me take you, but he refused to give me one of the donkeys; he said he needed them in the fields. So…so, I carried you. I thought I could find someone to help us on the road, because it is so far…I couldn’t. And I thought I could take you farther, but…I kept falling down. I’m so sorry, I…please Nou, I can’t lose you, what can I do? Tell me, please, what should I do!” Nourata felt the sun’s burning dissipate and saw shadows racing across the field. Leaning her head back, she stared up at the sky, watching as dark clouds stormed in, moving like an army unit invading a post. She smiled inwardly, thanking the clouds.
“I brought the rain, Ami,” she whispered, looking back into her sisters eyes. “I went and I found it and I told it to come because we needed it, because it couldn’t forget us anymore. Because you need it.” Nourata breathed in deeply the musky odor that always preceded rain, felt the first few drops splatter onto her legs and ground next to her.
“I need you, Nou,” her sister whispered, choking. “Nou, you’re all I have. You give my life a reason. You’re the only person I want to see when I wake up and when I go to sleep. I can’t be here without you; please, don’t leave me.” Aminata began weeping, and her tears splashed thickly onto Nourata’s face, cooling the fiery sensation in her cheek. Above, a clap of thunder sounded and the rain started to fall forcefully, quickly soaking through the clothes of the two girls. Nourata held the red flower close to her chest, and felt her sister intertwine her fingers into her other hand. She looked up at her one more time.
“I love you, Ami,” she said.
“I love you too, Nou.”