by J.R. Cole
In the country where I grew up the clouds had grown thick skins, belligerent underbellies that would not give up their gift.
Storms approached from the mountain range to the west, floating like leaden cargo ships, while my little sister and I watched through our bedroom window. I told her fantasies of handsome boys playing shuffleboard and girls wearing silk dresses dancing on the decks of those vessels, hidden from lowly creatures like us who toiled below on the ocean floor. As she fell asleep in my lap, I could see my father like a naked tree standing tall far off in his field of yellow despair and stubble shaking a fist at heaven. This was his form of prayer. I imagined his sandals sinking into the chalky soil. The ground swallowed his tears and gave nothing in return.
He and my mother talked of migrating elsewhere. We children gnawed on the soft wood legs of the kitchen table, chewed on the wool rug, sucking out the flavor of sour blue and briny red dye. They scolded us to not whimper, but we didn’t know any better. All we knew was starvation and unfulfilled want.
Father knew the cycle of the seasons, and they spanned years. He promised us there would come a time when the clouds could not hold back another day. When that time came, they looked heavy and forlorn, defeated. Their thick gray flesh sagged almost to the breaking point and father got his ladder and climbed on the roof of our house with a long steel pole. As the clouds lumbered by, he lunged like a crazed hunter hoping to pierce one. Mother shouted for him to stop, screamed that he would kill us all. She had seen what could happen, and only she knew. She had traveled on her own much farther to the east, where the clouds had dropped New Rain.
Of course, nothing Father did could puncture the clouds. We listened to his pole strike their edges, and we covered our ears against the violent scratching sound as the tip dragged along the surface.
He yelled down to us that the time was near, very near. He laid down to sleep on the roof to be the first to feel this so-called New Rain.
Inside, my sister crawled into my lap and we huddled with Mother in our bedroom. She whispered to us that devastation was near. She knew. In the land where we lived, the rain would no longer fall as it did in the old days, how it did when my parents were children, in small specks like magic coins or prizes that turned the ground a new color, and secretly lifted the rivers at night, and invented streams where before there had been only sticks and blackberry bushes. No, all of that was only stories, legends, a fantasy our mother told us it was all right to imagine. Then she asked us to close our eyes.
Where we lived, the New Rain had gathered inside the clouds for weeks and months. It held on like a criminal, like an angry child. And then that night, when it was ready, it finally came down full of its hate and rejuvenation. One monstrous flood of water broke from the clouds and crashed down on the land. It struck with a thunderous concussion that shook the earth. The drop, as if one unimaginable drop the size of the valley we lived in, fell and it wiped out entire villages, flooded all the farms for miles, drowned herds of cattle, toppled barns and houses and bridges, and it crushed our father sleeping so restless there on the roof, and tore off the front door and shudders of the house, and it swept our mother away, and then it took me, but it spared my baby sister, and left her alone, dreaming in her bed to start anew.
J.R. Cole lives and writes from a cabin on the south bank of the Russian River in the town of Duncans Mills, Calif. A recipient of the 2017 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers and a nominee for a 2019 Pushcart Prize, J.R. has had stories published in The Summerset Review, Crack the Spine, JONAH Magazine and Salmon Creek Journal. While J.R. was getting an MFA from the University of San Francisco, his novel ffrrfr was nominated for the AWP Intro Journals Project.