It was one of the dry years, the kind of year where the sun sucks even the dew out of the earth through a straw. The brush became brown and withered and snakes hid themselves under rocks.
It was a bad year for the little farm on the side of the hill.
Mallow’s grandfather had built the farm himself. It was small, about ten acres. The house was at the base of the hill, and the crop land sloped up among the rocks and stumps of dead trees. It was bad land for farming. The best land had been scooped up by the rich landowners, their farms gobbling up all the flatlands for acres and acres. The poor farmers took what was left: they built amongst the stones and in the valleys and on the dry, sloping hills.
It was only in the dry years that they were equal: in the dry years, the drought fell on the flat land and sloped land alike, and both rich and poor paced the caked earth, squinting at the sky, waiting for rain.
All except for Mallow.
Mallow was a different kind of boy. At fifteen, he did not like sitting in the sun, or tilling the earth, or working the fields. His mind was full of gears and wheels, of wires and electricity. He liked to sit in the shade with a yellow notepad and make sketches of all the inventions he would build one day. What’s more, he believed the legends: he knew all his grandmother’s stories about the old magic of the land, before it had been tamed. He still believed it was waiting out there, perhaps also hiding from the hot sun.
So it was that one day, a particularly scorching day when the ground was hard and cracked, Mallow put on his hat and went looking for rain bones.
There was an antelope, it was said, that walked the sands in the cool of night. It was not born like an earthly mammal: it collected bit by bit when a cloud visited the earth, conceived in droplets on the spines of cacti and the eyelids of geckos. Steam came off its flanks and it had eyes like deep thunderclouds. It roamed the desert for a single night, the center of a storm wild and turbulent, until morning when it dissipated like mist into the air.
And though it was a creature of water, when it died it left behind bones. Those bones, people said, could summon storms.
It was for these bones that Mallow went looking.
He combed the desert, swishing a long stick in front of him, feeling the hard crust of the earth under his toes. He went back and forth all morning, following a rhythmic pattern, leaving no square inch of land unchecked. Three times he found bones laying in the sand, polished and white: but they were not rain bones. At noon he stopped under the shade of a cactus and ate a bit of millet from his pouch, pinching the grains between his fingers. Then he sat squinting and recovering his strength while the sun sent its murderous glare down at the ground, looking for anyone bold or stupid enough to face its wrath.
At the end of its arc, as the sun began to settle in to sleep, Mallow kept walking. He walked long after the sun had disappeared behind the distant hills, long after the moon and stars had yawned and opened their eyes, blinking in curious surprise at this traveler cutting across the sand.
It was almost morning when Mallow’s vigilance was rewarded.
Under a bush, dry and withered and dead in the heat, was a skull. Its eyes were gaping and empty, and two horns curved from its forehead. When Mallow saw it, a great something rose up in him, a kind of holy dread even the desert and the sun had not been able to conjure up. Despite the dryness of the air, the skull was covered in glittering dew. His hands shook a little as he bent to lift it from the dirt, and it was cool and wet under his fingers.
It took him all day to return. He ran out of water. At noon he slept beneath an outcropping as the sun once again traced its murderous arc, cradling the skull close to his chest. The dew on it had not dried, and the condensation soaked into his shirt.
He arrived back at the little farm at sundown. His mother ran out the door, sobbing and hitting him over the head with a spatula.
“You stupid boy! We thought the sun had taken you!”
Mallow only grinned and went inside. His father was sitting at the table, the weight of his body pressing deep into the wooden chair. Mallow put the skull on the table.
“Father, I have found rain bones!”
His father only sighed. The skin around his eyes was sagging. “Mallow, you have given your mother quite a scare.”
“Father, look,” said Mallow again. “I have found rain bones.”
“You are being foolish. Your grandmother meant those stories for children. I have seen many antelope skulls in the desert: they are plentiful, easy to find. There is no magic in them. You have grieved and worried us all for nothing but a common trinket.”
Mallow’s jaw clenched. He looked at the skull and at his father, quivering a little with exultation that had been rebuffed, triumph that, like electricity, had no place to go, no conduit along which to travel. Then he picked up the skull, which still glistened with dew, and went outside.
His grandfather was hitching up the cart to his old buffalo. Mallow went over to him.
“I will plow the fields today, Grandpa.”
His grandfather squinted at him. “Mallow. Your mother has been crying at the window for you.”
Mallow put out his hand to take the reins.
Even though he hated farm work, Mallow finished hitching the cart and set the skull inside. Then he whipped and cried in a loud voice at the old buffalo, and though it snorted at him it began to move up the sloping field.
In the town, an old farmer fanning himself in the dust of his doorway looked up and saw clouds gathering over the hills.
That day, it rained only over the farmland of Mallow’s family.
And the news crackled through the village: Mallow had found rain bones.
There was a rich farmer in the village. His name was Korva. For many weeks now he had been looking out over his vast fields, dry and caked, with mounting anxiety. His paid workers would not work. His wife, who had become accustomed to fine food and wine, was complaining. His two sons, spoiled and soft, complained all the louder. But the money was running out.
It was then that Korva heard the cry going up all over the town: Mallow had found rain bones. Korva went into his house and opened his closet, and even though it was far too hot, he took out one of his finest suits. He put leather shoes on his feet and a gold ring on his finger. Then he went to see the town magistrate, who happened to be his neighbor, Geese.
“Have you heard, neighbor? There is good fortune in the town.”
Geese was sitting in the shade of his porch, his hat tipped low over his eyes.
“I have heard.”
“It seems to me,” said Korva, “that matters of rain and drought are not individual only, but concern us all. When the season is good and there is a great harvest, don’t rich and poor rejoice together? And yet when the sky has no clouds and the earth is barren, don’t we, having much land, suffer double what those farmers in the foothills suffer? For while their land feeds only a few, ours is depended upon by many.”
“This is true.”
“Would you agree, then, that the lot of the whole town is much affected by the drought, and that such good fortune—one that can end the hardship of many families and fill the hungry mouths of many children—ought to be shared?”
“Yes, I agree.” Geese tipped his hat back and looked at Korva with some interest. “What do you propose?”
That very evening, Mallow’s family was celebrating. His mother boiled the last bit of meat, and his grandfather broke out an old bottle of wine from the cellar. Mallow’s sister played the flute while they sang and danced around the table, on which sat the skull, glistening with droplets of dew.
It was in the middle of the celebration that Mallow’s father, who had been staring for a long time in amazement at the skull on the table, looked out the window and saw two men in suits at the front gate. He stood quickly and shushed the room.
“The magistrate is outside.”
“That lazy, good-for-nothing swindler?” said Mallow’s grandmother. “What does he want?”
“I don’t know. The landowner, Korva, is with him.”
A silence settled on the little farmhouse. Mallow’s face turned dark.
“They’ve come for the rain bones.”
Outside, Korva and Geese stood with their hands in their pockets. Korva rocked on his heels and squinted up at the sky, streaked red and purple from the setting sun. Geese made little circles in the sand with the toe of his shoe.
Then the front door opened, and to their surprise, there was Mallow. He was alone.
“Hello, Mallow,” called Korva. “Is your father home?”
Mallow came down the path towards them. “Makes no difference,” he said. “The thing you’ve got to talk over you’d best talk over with me.”
“These are matters for men. You should fetch your father.”
“You presume much if you think you know what makes someone a man and not a child, Korva.”
Korva frowned. “Mind your tongue, boy. I am a town elder.”
“A position you bought rather than earned, I hear.”
Korva bristled, but Geese interjected. “Mallow, there is word spreading around town that you have come across a great fortune.”
“We’ve had a bit of rain, if that’s what you mean.”
“There is talk that you’ve found something in the desert.”
“Mallow,” said Geese. “It is the opinion of the elders that such a fortuitous find would be of great benefit to the entire town.”
The three of them looked at each other then, two men and one boy with a gate between them. They looked at each other and they measured and they felt something gathering and building in the silence.
“And,” said Mallow, his voice shaking, “when you, Korva, hired us poor farmers to work your land and then paid only two-thirds of the agreed upon amount? Or that year the sickness went through the herd and you raised the price of medicine for our cows so that it was too high for us to pay? And then, when all our cows were dead, when you doubled the price of fertilizer and milk? Was that also a great benefit to the entire town?” He shook his head. “I will not give you the rain bones.”
“Who is acting like a child now?” said Korva. “You would let the town starve while your family is fed?”
“I never said that,” said Mallow. “But, all the same, I will not give you the bones.”
Then he turned and went back inside, leaving the two men standing just beyond the gate.
That night the entire village lay awake. Under the moonlight whispers went down from the foothills and spread like floodwaters throughout the flatland: everyone had seen Korva walking back down the dusty road beside Geese, away from Mallow’s house, anger smoldering on his face. The other landowners heard about it over their dinner, and they wiped their mouths with cloth napkins and shook their heads. Something would have to be done. And when the farmers in the foothills heard they were afraid: they knew such insolence would not be allowed to stand.
But the next day, Mallow stepped outside and he was carrying the skull. Like the day before, he hitched up his cart. He put the rain bones inside and went to the house of his neighbor, a poor farmer named Dill. Dill was waiting at the gate when Mallow arrived, driving his buffalo.
“Mallow,” said Dill. “Go back. This is a dangerous game you are playing.”
Mallow only looked out at the barren land, with its brambles and rocks. Then he grinned. “Perhaps. But wouldn’t you like to know how it feels to live like the flatlanders for a day?”
Dill stared at him for a long time. Then he laughed and swung open the gate.
That day Mallow drove his cart all across the foothills, watering the land of the poor farmers. He did the same thing the next day, and the next, and the next, until at last from the hard, rocky ground crops began to grow. And down in the flatland, the other landowners watched with darkening eyes.
Then, one evening at sunset, Korva stepped out onto his porch and sniffed the air. He stepped onto the path and began to walk in the direction of the foothills. As he went, others began to join him: other landowners, carrying axes and pitchforks. Geese, a hatchet in his belt. And still others, men in dark clothes, paid men with knives.
And at the little farmhouse on the hill, Mallow’s father looked up from dinner and saw that there were men gathered outside the gate.
“Mallow!” called Korva. “Bring us your rain bones.”
For a moment, nothing happened. Then Mallow stepped outside. In his right hand, he held the skull.
“Every year you take the best,” he said. “You drove my grandfather to the base of the hill to scrape out a living from the poor earth, amongst the rocks and weeds. You will not have these bones.”
The landowners grumbled and clutched their tools. Korva nodded at the paid men.
They advanced on the little house, hands on their knives.
At the sight of the men coming towards him, deep despair went through Mallow. Without knowing what he was doing, he lifted the skull over his head, one hand on each curving horn, and cried out in a loud voice.
There was a blinding flash.
Lightning fell from heaven.
It struck the leader of the men with the knives, and he became blackened ash. The others turned and ran. Korva, startled though he was, shouted obscenities at them, demanding that they turn back. But then he looked at Mallow again and saw there was a storm in his eyes, and overhead black clouds were swirling. So he too turned and ran.
That night, Mallow’s father sat watchful at the window.
“You have saved us, my son,” he said. “But you know they will come back. And next time they will have more men. And if that time you send them running once more, they will return again, and again, until there is an army at our front door. You will not be able to stop them forever.”
But Mallow lifted the skull. “Let them try, father. I am Mallow: this is my land, and these are my bones. Let them try.”
After that, Mallow never let go of the skull, even when he slept. Each morning he awoke with his hands and chest damp from the dew that covered its surface and never dissipated. As long as he carried the bones, no one dared to touch him.
But one day, when he was out watering the fields in the foothills, his neighbor Dill came running.
“Mallow! There are men in your house. They are bad men. They have your family.”
Mallow pulled the reins to halt his buffalo, turning to look at the horizon. For a moment he felt a terrible fear, but then he became calm: he knew what he must do. He pat his buffalo on the head, climbed down from the cart, and handed the reins to Dill.
“The game is up at last, neighbor,” he said. “Still, it was something while it lasted, wasn’t it?”
“What are you going to do?” Dill asked.
“I will finish what I’ve started. Watch for my coming.”
Then he took the skull from the cart. But instead of walking back towards his house, he turned and walked out into the desert.
The hours of the day wore on. The whole village stood in a hush. Wind creaked at wooden shutters, snakes came out from beneath rocks and stood still, watching with their wet eyes. At the farm on the side of the hill, occasionally a man in dark clothes stepped out onto the porch and looked both ways down the street before going back inside, the screen door slamming shut behind him.
Still Mallow did not come.
The sun moved across the sky.
At three o’clock, a messenger went out from the little farmhouse. He began to go door to door, looking for the place to deliver his threat. But at house after house, the people shook their heads. Mallow was not there. The sun sank, and the messenger went back to the little farmhouse.
That night, the villagers awoke every hour, on the hour. They peered out their windows at the farm on the side of the hill. But all remained quiet.
The next day, in Mallow’s house, Korva paced back and forth. Mallow’s family sat around the table, careful not to breathe too loud. In a circle around them were the men with knives like statues of stone.
“Why doesn’t he come?” said Korva.
Geese was reclining in the window, picking his teeth with a toothpick. “Perhaps he does not love them.”
“Nonsense. What does the boy have besides his family?”
“He has the rain bones.”
Just then, someone called from the front gate. It was Dill, waving a white flag. Korva went out to the front porch.
“Has the boy sent you?”
“Yes, Korva,” called Dill. “He says to tell you that he is bringing the skull to you.”
Korva smiled. “Then he is not so stupid as he appears. Tell him to come.”
“The boy Mallow says to tell you that he will not come. Instead he has brought the rain bones to your home. He is there now, and he is whispering sweet words to the sky.”
Korva looked up. Across the valley, over the good cropland, clouds were gathering.
Dill said: “The boy Mallow will not come.”
Korva opened the door and barked inside. “Get them up! It is time to end this.”
In single file, the men marched Mallow’s family across the valley to where the storm was brewing.
When they came to Korva’s house, Korva’s wife and sons were waiting outside.
“He said he would strike us down if we moved from the porch,” said his wife. She was afraid; his sons sat on the steps and would not meet his eyes. “He is doing something in there; I hear him scuffling around. He will only talk to you.”
Korva grunted. He turned to Geese. “Keep watch over the boy’s family. If anything happens to me, my family, or my property, cut their throats.”
Geese shrugged and picked at his teeth.
Korva did not look at his wife or his sons as he walked through the door. Inside, it was cool. The air smelled wet. There was a hush, and on everything, the grandfather clock and the bookshelf and the ceramic vases, dew had been collecting. It came outward, spreading from the storm’s eye, and Korva followed it into the kitchen.
Mallow was sitting at the table, holding the skull. Trickles of water ran like tears down the walls.
The boy smiled. “Let’s come to an agreement, you and I.”
Korva regarded him. Then he put his knife away. “Tell me your terms.”
“I will give you the rain bones. You will let my family go. And you will give us your land.”
The boy was serious. Korva chuckled. “Do you suppose I am that desperate? This dry ground would gladly drink the blood of your family before I agree to such nonsense.”
“Perhaps. But then, what would I have left to live for? What would prevent me from calling lightning down on this place with you and I inside?”
Korva only smiled. “The rain bones are of no use to me without land, boy.”
Mallow nodded. “Very well. Then you will take our farm.”
Korva looked around his kitchen, at the fine countertops and the well-stocked cupboards. Under the kitchen table, one of the polished wooden floorboards was out of place. He frowned and pushed it down with his toe. Then he turned to look out the window. Acres and acres of dry, cracked land stretched before him. It was good earth, it was true: in a good year it would yield twenty times what the tough and rocky soil the little farm on the side of the hill could produce. But only if there was rain.
“I will call the magistrate,” said Korva, “and we will draw up the deeds right away.”
So Geese came inside. They wrote up they papers, all while the dark clouds hung suspended overhead. Mallow did not move, but his sharp eyes watched every stroke of the pen, the gaping holes in the skull watchful and ready.
“You are being played for a fool, neighbor,” said Geese in a whisper as he marked the deed with his official seal. “This land is worth a hundredfold what that sorry patch of earth is worth.”
Korva only smiled. “Yes. But there is more good land in the valley. Yours, neighbor, and the other landowners. And I will have the rain bones.”
Geese had nothing to say to that.
When the deeds were signed and sealed, Mallow said: “Now send your men to my farmhouse.”
Korva did. All day long they went back and forth between the two houses. They took Korva’s things, the grandfather clock and the bookshelf and the ceramic vases, and put them in the little farmhouse. The men brought to the flatland the things belonging to Mallow’s family: the table and chairs, his sister’s flute, and last of all the old cart and the buffalo. When Korva’s wife saw it she threw a fit and pounded her husband with her fists, but he paid no attention.
At sunset the great exchange was complete, and Korva and Mallow stood face to face in the center of the valley. The paid men had been sent away, and their families were hidden safely away in their new houses. Man and boy stood facing each other, alone.
“Now,” said Korva, “the bones.”
Mallow placed the skull on the ground. Then he saluted Korva and walked away.
Korva leaned over and plucked the skull out of the dirt. His fingers were shaking as he examined it: the fine, smooth surface, whole but for part of the jawbone that was missing and one of the horns that had been broken off. He felt the worn enamel, polished white and bleached dry like the desert itself. As he traced the edges, he could feel the blood rushing into the tips of his fingers. He thrust the skull up over his head, face flashing at the sky.
The bones didn’t work.
In the little houses in the foothills, the villagers watched behind curtains as the once-great Korva uttered every curse and incantation known to man before finally dashing the skull against the ground and sinking to his knees with a loud and terrible cry.
That very night, two dozen men armed with torches surrounded Mallow’s new residence. Dill and the other poor farmers were waiting by the gate, armed with pitchforks.
“Tell your men to go home, Korva,” called Dill. “This land is Mallow’s now.”
At the front of the throng, Korva shook with fury. “The boy has been deceitful! I will take him to the square and burn him alive!”
“Deceitful? Did you not sign the deed yourself, good Korva? Magistrate, perhaps you can tell us: was anything illegal done today?”
Geese, who was with them, saw that the tide had turned against Korva. He shrugged. “Not to my knowledge. The town elders will uphold the transaction.”
At this, the men with torches looked at each other and lowered their weapons. Only Korva stood quaking. He turned and shouted at the walls of the house, the house that had been his only this morning.
“Hear my words, Mallow! I will not rest until you burn for your trickery!”
At the gate, Dill smiled. “Save your breath, Korva. Mallow is not here.”
It was true. For days afterwards, Korva’s men searched everywhere for Mallow, thirsting for his blood. But he could not be found.
Years passed. Mallow’s family worked the good land. Because there was more land than they could possibly farm, they hired Dill and the other poor farmers, and they paid them generously. Soon the other rich landowners followed Geese’s lead and accepted the turn of events: Korva’s crusade of vengeance was abandoned, and he lived out the last of his days in brooding anger in the little farmhouse on the side of the hill.
Then, one day, after the death of Korva, Mallow returned. He brought with him gears and wires, electricity and metal, for Mallow had gone to university. In a faraway city he had studied engineering and agriculture, and he brought back with him his whole wealth of knowledge. Soon he had carved out waterways and irrigation into the valley, setting up wind turbines to harness the harsh desert wind.
After that, even in the dry seasons the land had water.
A long time afterwards, Mallow, now grown, sat with his elderly father in rocking chairs on the porch. They sat content and still, overlooking their vast fields, holding cool glasses of water.
“You have made our village plentiful,” said his father. “I am proud of you.”
Mallow said nothing. But inside he felt electricity go through him and out into the earth, spreading out far beneath the roots of the land.
“One thing I never did understand,” his father said. “Why didn’t the rain bones work for Korva? Why couldn’t he summon the rain?”
Mallow only grinned. “A man like Korva would never have listened to grandmother’s stories.”
“Yes…that is true.”
They sat for a while longer. Then his father got up and went inside. For a long time Mallow sat looking out. He sat until the sun sank behind the foothills and the moon came out over the desert. Then he too stood and went inside.
Mallow walked down the hall and into the kitchen, where he had sat many decades ago, bargaining for the life of his family. He looked around at the walls and the table, the table that had once stood in the little farmhouse on the side of the hill. Underneath the table, the floorboards were dusty. Mallow bent down and blew the dust away. Then, with calloused fingers, he pried them up.
Down below, in the dirt and debris beneath the house that was once Korva’s, was a skull. Two horns curled from its head, and its dark eyes stared at him. Its surface glistened with dew.
Mallow let the planks fall back into place and laughed long and hard.
Story by Matt Mills