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Notion Press Singapore Short Story Contest 2017


By Gerald Wee Eng Kian in Romance

I stood in a dusty and barren valley, a light cloud of haze hung in the air. The crops had failed with the absent rain, the long drought having felled many of the citrus trees and stunted the rest. Where once was green and gold with grasses and flowers, there now lay a dust bowl. Having fully surveyed the desolation, I pulled away the rag that served as my dust mask I took a tentative breath of air.

Despite the choking smog, there was still a hint of water. I could still taste it in the polluted air. I stood still listening, my sensitive hearing reached deep beneath till I came upon an aquifer. The secret river moved unseen and unheard to all common men. But I am not a common man.

A voice broke me out of my thoughts. It was the chieftain of this remote homestead that had engaged my services. His name was Paul and the long drought had aged him greatly with worry.

“Master Adam, will you be able to help us?” He said,

I smiled at the suddenly old man who immediately brightened.

“With your help, the rain can be coaxed to return” I said,

Together we walked back to the settlement for the long task at hand. For a Rainbringer, conjuring the last true magic of the world requires the kindling of hope in desperate places.

Organizing the settlers into work gangs wasn’t difficult. Grandfather did say I had an easygoing and charismatic manner. If my old master was here, he would have been a stern taskmaster for the physical work of felling the logs for carving, digging the foundations and raising the raintotems. I would have been playing underfoot amongst the settlers and singing to keep their spirits up.

But grandfather has been gone for years and thus the manual work proceeded slowly. Watching the grand work, I quashed my own impatience at the pace. For the strongest lesson that was drilled into me is that coaxing rain to appear takes its own time. Chastened by the memory, I picked up the mallet and chisel to continue carving the totem.

It was a young pine I carved into, forming birds flying formations, rainclouds and farmers working the fields. Being a carpenter was the inheritance from my father. While he didn’t have the talent for coaxing rain, he mastered the ways of shaping wood as a store of hope and memory. Every totem my masters raised was created with pride and celebration. It was a work done together, father and son, towards a purpose that can only be described as magical.

“If only you could see this”, I thought to myself.

I finished the last carving, a swallow in flight, and admired the display. It told the story of seasons past and seasons to come.

“The Rainbringer carves the chief totem, around which the heavens gather…” was the start of the incantation, “May clouds and mist, seas and rivers return with a gentle kiss”.

The spell complete, all that remains was to consecrate and raise the totem.

It was a bright and cloudless morning on the day of the raising. There was great difficulty in the task as the dust and strong winds threatened to wreck the foundation, toppling the effort. Still the settlers persevered, investing their last hope in a desperate method. The modern march of progress did not extinguish the old ways; it only pushed it into the lands where few men tread. But as I mentioned before, I’m not an ordinary man.

Once the task of raising the totem is done, there comes a final task: mounting the streamers and ornaments. For somewhere in their travels, my father had come upon a tribe of wanderers. Amongst them was a girl who dealt with precious stones and baubles. A spirited young woman, she had scolded my masters on the plainness of their handiwork. How could anyone believe in a boring pillar planted upright in the ground? So challenged, father quickly engaged her to improve their totem.

She eventually became my mother. Since that union, the totems were adorned with carvings studded with gems. They were usually animals with eyes of quartz and agate, but the totem I raised today was meant to evoke a constellation. It would glitter by firelight and add to the magic.

It was dangerous work, the ladder I used barely stable with the chaotic gusts of wind. The moment I placed the last ornament, a disc inlaid with a spiral of silver, did I quickly make my descent. That’s when I heard the crack as the rung of the ladder gave way and I tumbled onto the hard, dusty ground. The last conscious thought I had before the sharp darkness was my grandfathers’ deep voice.

“You lost your patience again…”

It was night time; we were at the fireplace of my old home. Mother and father were at their workbench; together they were discussing their designs. Grandfather sat in his chair to weave the streamers. I was playing on an old rug with my toys, a tin farmer with a menagerie of animals. A question suddenly came to me and I tugged at the hem of grandfather’s leggings.

“Does a raintotem only work with rain?” I asked.

Smiling, the old man brought me to his lap to whisper in my ear, “It works with everything”

“Master Adam, don’t look” I heard from my suddenly returning consciousness. It took a while to attach the voice to elder Paul.

Other things were being said, but in the shock, pain and confusion none of it made sense.

“His leg is broken and he’s struck his head”. Said a strong but unfamiliar voice. I turned as much as I could to the source and was taken by surprise by the vision.

“Grandfather, it’s true. When you die the water spirits are beautiful” was what I said.

There was a round of giggles and the water fairy turned to hush group behind her.

“I’m going to reset the bone, bite down on this” she said as she forced a strip of leather between my teeth.

With a twist and a crack, strong hands manipulated the broken bone back in place. I lost consciousness from the pain and shock. When they carried my battered body into the infirmary a light drizzle began to fall. What had begun as a ritual of celebration was now heavy with concern for my health. When I awoke a day later, a new purpose drove my thoughts.

The bone setter was named Alice. She was a serious young woman despite her tiny frame, doubtless gained from attending to the hurts and ills of rough pioneers. Despite the severe outlook, she had effective manner to her work, something that spoke of a deep kindness and compassion. Sensing this, I made the effort to catch her attention at every opportunity. This usually meant following closely during her rounds, challenging as it was on crutches.

“Master Adam, will you finally be well enough to recover?” she said after a long and exasperating evening as her shadow. “Your work with bringing the rain clearly isn’t done”

“My work is complete as it is” I said pointing outside a window. There was a fine shower of rain blanketing the infirmary courtyard. “Now I pursue other interest”.

Alice shook her head at my answer. “We need more than this minor blessing against the long drought” was her reply before stalking off.

I stood there for a while, watching the raindrops after her exit. She was plainly correct in her assessment. “Father and Grandfather, what would you do?” I said to myself. “Get back to work” was their united reply. Smiling at their memory, I set off to find wood and a carving knife.

Despite the constant pain, I worked my found materials into figurines which I promptly placed throughout the infirmary. Their subject ranged from the mundane, to the fanciful {I had carved a series a water fairies} and even mature and saucier expressions of creativity. She was bound to encounter them and the corresponding rise in interest appeared to increase the volume of the rainfall.

On the final evening of my stay at the infirmary, I stood by the window where I had been chastened by Alice to admire the steady downpour from the sky. It was no longer a sprinkling but appeared as a transparent curtain. The young woman joined me to place the last figurine I had carved on the window sill. It was a pair of swallows joined in flight, worked from a single piece of pine wood.

“You’re full of surprises”, she said. Her expression was unreadable.

“I’m the most surprised here. Grandfather said the totem works with everything. I didn’t believe him till this moment”.

“Doubtless he would scold you for doubting his wisdom” she said with some amusement. “He is no longer around?” she asked.

“My family is gone. A fever took all of them years ago”

She nodded at the answer, acknowledging the loss was enough. Pointing to my formerly broken leg, “The pain is not too much trouble?” I made the mistake of bringing my attention to it and a sliver of ache quickly appeared. Her hand moved quickly, and with a strong press of her thumb that pain slowly subsided.

“How did you do it?” she asked, “Make the rain return”.

“That’s a secret. Something…” I continued, “in exchange for one of yours.”

With a cheeky grin, I asked “Yours first, how did you make the pain go away?”

Returning the grin, she said “Your body has special places for these sensations. Pressing the correct one either banishes pain or inflicts it tenfold”. Alice continued “which one would you like to feel next?”

“Now, how do you make it rain?. Because a simple pillar in the ground does not have that power”

Leaning close, I whispered into her ear “I use Love.”

Her incredulous laugh was all the response I required. Reaching out into the curtain of water, I caught a droplet on my fingertip. “I love water in the entirety of its essence. Water return the favour”. She saw the reverence of water in my expression and knew it for truth. Taking my hand with the raindrop, she brought it to her lips in a kiss.

It is said the rain poured in a great torrent for three straight days after that evening. By the end of that downpour I had few secrets to keep. Such is the life of a Rainbringer.

Copyright Gerald Wee Eng Kian
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