Story by Natalie Mills · Estimated Reading Time: 6 Minutes
It was the second spring storm, and the city had been waiting for it for days. In the deepest part of the desert, they were surrounded by sands and wind that brought sandstorms almost every week but thunderstorms only a few times each year. Most of the time, the city sat complacent in a steady breeze, perched on the edge of the plateau as wind whistled up the side and over the city before rambling off into the distance.
A young woman in the street, walking in sandals with straps that were loosening and letting the dirt in, paused in an alleyway to fix her shoe when she sniffed the air, forgot about her shoe, and hurried the rest of the way home. A donkey that was sleeping at the edge of the plateau moved restlessly about, trampling a few rising blades of grass, waking his neighbors with his motion. The man who watched over the donkeys was asleep at the back of the shed. He heard the stamping donkey and smiled slightly in his sleep, his body recognizing the signs before his mind fully woke up. A moment later, his eyes opened, and he jumped off of the ledge where he napped and onto the dusty ground.
In the distance, where the night sky was still lingering as the sun pushed it out, a mass of clouds settled on the horizon, solidifying into an ordered army of troops for battle, waiting for the signal to move. Glad to be the first with the news, the man strolled to the next home over, where a puff of smoke curled out of the chimney and a clatter of dishes came from the kitchen. Olivia was cooking breakfast. He poked his head in the window and chatted amiably, waiting until his neighbor was fully engrossed in his speech. Then he pointed toward the horizon and said with importance, “The clouds are settling. Depending on the wind, we may see our second storm today.”
Olivia was a busy woman, usually too busy to watch for a storm that might not come, that might glide impassively across the horizon in a full day, never inching closer to them. Even when the wind was right, she did not watch. She let her young sons watch; they ran out to look and ran back to her to shout the latest news through the kitchen window where she was sitting at the table stirring another meal together for them to give them energy for their shouting and running with the news.
Today, though, the storm would fill her mind even as she continued her work. She was easily perturbed today; the last storm had taken her by surprise. She knew it was coming, of course, because the old man in his stables and the young woman fidgeting with her shoe had seen and run off to tell their friends who told other friends until the two strands of news grew together in the ears of the hearers and turned into one concrete fact that no one could lay a first claim to. That day, the storm had moved in fiercely and dispassionately, suddenly striking the first house and mowing over each one with a river of rain until the wood of each window and door frame seemed soaked through to the bones of the trees they were made from, and the rocks were washed free of each speck of sand, even on their undersides where the wind and rain had to work together just right to splash out the brittle dust. That storm moved through cracks in each home and the holes in each wall like smoke from a fire, entering, pooling, and refusing to leave until time kicked it out.
Olivia touched her stomach, protruding out between her and the bowl she stirred. The baby inside kicked lightly every few minutes, but she had not kicked since this morning, since before the sun had peeked its head and the town spotted the storm. Olivia worried that the town was anticipating the storm as normal, but that her baby had other plans—either warring with the storm itself or hiding in perfect stillness, petrified until it passed. Olivia, who had never liked the rainstorms much, knew the feeling of wanting them to be over, but she worried that a little girl who feared or fought the storms could never live here on the plateau where they rushed in like a horde of bandits, cleaning out the town and draining the day of any work until they galloped across the horizon, turning back into clouds and drifting away.
The storm came, and it was the second storm of the year. It did not pass them in the distance or stampede through like an animal but walked up, wrapped in a soft breeze that seemed fitting for spring. The clouds rolled over the town like a blanket unrolling over a couple at night, tired but not exhausted, and began with a steady shower before collapsing on the town with raindrops so thick she could see them falling, as good sleep comes completely to the couple lying in bed.
Under Olivia’s hand, the baby did not move or kick. Olivia sat down at the upstairs window where she rarely sat, watching the storm beat new color into the world, a deep brown into the walls of their home, green into the grass, and black into the distant sky. What do you think, Little One? she asked. And the baby still did not move. Olivia reached around her body, searching for fear. Was that what the baby felt? She felt none. She felt around for war. Was this some battle she was locked out of by her own littlest child? There was none. Then Olivia, who had lived her life between meals and preparation, with one hand stirring as the other wondered what to stir next, felt around again, this time without an expectation of what she would find. And there, in the center of her womb, in the heart of a little girl who had not yet seen the sky or the rain or the stone house with a wooden door, she found a small steady beat of joy.
Six years later, another storm rolled in on a similar spring day, and Olivia’s two sons rushed home before the torrent to shout it to their mother, who had seen it coming several hours before. They smacked sticks as they ran, telling their friends, who shouted the same news back to them. The rain began and Olivia realized that her daughter had not come home with them. Chiding the brothers for leaving her behind, they insisted, “She came home first; she ran ahead.”
Olivia went to the second floor to see if her daughter was there in the children’s room, waiting among her sheets, but she was not. Out the second floor window, Olivia saw her standing in the yard, with her feet apart and her hands above her as if they were holding up the sky, catching the first few drops of rain on her shirt and arms. Olivia called to her, but there was no answer. And again Olivia examined her daughter, searching for fear, for war. But there was no answer. Instead, the rain came fully, and her daughter stayed still except for a small motion at her mouth that turned upward with pleasure.
That night when the storm was done, tales of the girl standing in the rain went through town. Seven hours in the rain and she didn’t get sick? She must be a raincatcher, who lives for the rain and helps it work. The town hadn’t had one in years. But why now? Why this storm? It takes a few years, they said, before you knew if your child was a raincatcher. The child had to be old enough to know for herself. The town talked about these things all around Olivia and, like the news of rain, the confirmation of her daughter’s gift came around her all at once, a unified chorus of the same song where no one person sang the melody first.
That night, Olivia sat at her window upstairs while her daughter and sons were asleep in their room behind her. She put one hand over her stomach and the other out the window in the humid after-storm air, wondering about her daughter who stood in darkness to catch the rain. Olivia’s stomach, now smaller, told her nothing, so she raised her hand to sit at the meeting of her ribs. Feeling her heart lift with each breath, she listened. Was there fear? Was there war? No. Again, as during the storm six years earlier when she felt her daughter pause motionless as she watched the rain, there was only joy.