science fiction and fantasy writer

When the rain comin

Gamman smelled rain. Through a metre of hard red clay, through the tough membrane of her cocoon, she felt the clouds building.

And she smelled rain.

Slowly, she stirred from the deep torpor her body had sunk into over the long years of the dry. Warmth spread, as her heart began to pump faster. Her eyelids fluttered. She drifted into a shallower sleep. Fingers and toes, half-webbed, flexed.

The rigid shell of the cocoon had been secreted from the glands in her wrists, to harden as her body cooled and stilled. It began to break down now with her rising heat, filling the burrow with clean air.

Gamman awoke, sucking in deep breaths and holding them. With eyes, nostrils, lips and gills clamped firmly shut, she pressed her hands and feet around the walls of the cavity. Gamman turned herself over onto her knees and began to pull at the hard earth with fingernails like stout spades. She’d filled the burrow’s tunnel in behind her as she’d dug down into the earth. The years of the dry had compacted the loose dirt. The clay resisted, but her hands and forearms were strong. She dug steadily upwards.

Her fingertips found a trace of moisture. She shoved upwards and her hands broke free into cool air. Gamman shouldered her way through the surface layer of clay and pulled herself from the burrow.

She squatted, tucked up, with her eyes closed while she re-acquainted herself with the sound and touch of the world. It was daytime, but not warm. The wind raised goosebumps on her skin. The light came pink through her eyelids, but it wasn’t blinding bright. Small things scuttled about on the ground nearby. Gamman felt the prickle of thunder.

She opened her eyes.

She was facing the sea, the great dry pan of salt that went to the horizon. It was dull white under a roof of grey clouds that blotted the sun. The clouds were heavy with the sky’s grief, accumulated over the long years of the dry. The sea would fill up, when the rain fell.

It had rained some already, she could feel it in the dampness of the earth. But not enough, yet, to bring forth the green leaves and bright flowers that would carpet the ground once the true downpour began. Red dirt extended away from the saltpan, broken by outcrops of eroded rock the same colour. Red dunes encroached to the south, closer than Gamman remembered. The olive and grey foliage of brittle-dry shrubs interrupted the monotony. When the rain came, they would flower in yellow and blue, pink and white.

Gamman’s stomach grumbled. She duck-walked over to the nearest shrub and dug around its roots for the fat white grubs that slumbered there. She gobbled them greedily.

“Gamman.”

She turned. A man approached. His brown skin was covered in red dust, as was hers. The same stuff matted his hair and beard. His chest and shoulders were wide above the slits of his gills across his middle torso. His long-legged gait was easy.

“Ulin,” she said, her voice rusted from lack of use. “I be seein you.”

Ulin grinned, showing good teeth apart from one chipped corner at the front.

He squatted to join her digging under the shrub, quickly turning up a pair of grubs. He offered one to Gamman and popped the other into his mouth.

“You be early wakin,” he said.

“Early wakin like Suka, my mother,” she agreed.

Ulin swallowed the grub and smacked his lips. “Them late wakin peop’e don’ know what them missin,” he declared.

Gamman grimaced. The muscles of her face moved awkwardly, only dimly remembering the expression. “Fishes tas’e better, I think.”

Ulin chuckled. His gaze ran over her. “You bein all grown,” he said.

She felt a slight stirring between her legs. Ulin was a handsome man. “Am now,” she agreed.

He grinned again, then looked over his shoulder. He raised an arm to point to a low, flat-topped butte near the dry shore. “Some other early wakin peop’e be at the cave already.”

Gamman stood cautiously, bracing fingertips on Ulin’s shoulder while her head spun a moment. He rose beside her and they started walking towards the butte. She thought perhaps that Suka, her mother, would be among those already awake.

#

People gathered at the cave over the following days as scattered showers fell. The occasional rumble of thunder could be heard from deep within the clouds.

Of every newcomer, Gamman asked, “You been seein Suka, my mother?” But none had.

Her sister came in – Tennip, born of Suka as well and older than Gamman. Tennip answered the same as the rest, “No,” then watched Gamman a while as she asked the next ones after her.

Eventually Tennip came and sat beside Gamman at the mouth of the cave. Both of them gazed out over the saltpan.

Tennip said, “Suka, who give birth to you an me, she seen the rain come many time. I think she not be wakin this time.”

Gamman hung her head. “I think you right.”

Later, Gamman sat close beside Ulin. The light touch of his knee against her thigh had a burning intensity. Daylight had faded behind the clouds and the cave was lit only by the campfire. The people around it were still, at rest.

In the stories that were sometimes told, of the dawn time when there was always rain, people were always moving, never resting, never still, and all the creatures and fishes were the same. People didn’t dig in those days, but built their places by piling sticks and rocks on top of the ground, and hid inside from the rain. And they couldn’t breathe the water, just the air, so they had to do their fishing from the edge of the sea.

Gamman saw Tennip start to fidget, and knew that a song had come into her even before she lifted her head and released the first mournful cry.

“Ai-yah. Ai-yah oh!”

Gamman shared a sigh with all the rest.

Tennip cried out again, “Ai Suka! Ai-yah oh!”

She stood to begin a shuffling dance around the flames. Some rose to join her, others who were tired or who tended small children retreated to give the dancers room.

Ulin turned to Gamman. He laid a hand on her breast, then on her belly. She shivered.

“You bein ol’ enough, now,” he said.

They retreated to the back of the cave and mated, simply and quickly, kneeling on the dusty stone. Afterwards, Gamman lay on her side, afraid that his juice might run straight out of her if she stood, while Ulin joined the dance around the fire.

She watched the dancers, shuffling and stamping, and imagined them as people from the dawn time, always moving, and wondered at the strangeness of those days.

#

The storm finally broke, and the rain fell in sheets that hid the horizon. The people hunted small creatures that struggled from their burrows. They watched the flood creep across the saltpan. Then they swam, diving under for long hours with the brine flowing in their throats and gills. They chased the fishes – scaled, shelled or many-legged – and ate most of them raw. Only rarely did they come back to shore.

Gamman mated several more times with Ulin. The next rain, she would wake with a baby grown inside her. She would birth it in the flooding sea and suckle it and teach it to swim.

One night, near the end of the rain, the clouds broke apart for a while, as some of the people sat beside the shore. They gazed up at the stars.

A story came to Gamman that Suka, her mother, had told when Gamman was young. Gamman let it pass through her and out, beginning as stories always began: “In the dawn time, when the worl’ was new, there was always rain, for the sky still wep’ at bein apart from the earth.”

She waited for the sigh that said people were listening, then went on. “In time, the sky an the earth grew ol’, an them got slow, an them learn to be still. An all them creatures an fishes learn the same. An the sky learn to be conten’ with bein apart from the earth, an didn’ weep no more, hard’y at all. An there was no more rain. An all them creatures and them fishes learn to dig, an sleep still in the earth through the dry time, til the sky do weep again, an the rain come.

“An peop’e learn the same. ‘Cept for them who wouldn’. Them peopl’, them didn’ want to stay still, them want to keep movin. An them peop’e learn the way up to the sky, an them become the stars. Them a’ways movin, still.”

She slumped when the story was done with her, used up by the torrent of words. Ulin rested his hand on her back.

“Ai-yah oh,” sang Tennip, softly.

The stars wheeled overhead. No-one else spoke. They sat still, and watched.

<END>

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