Volume 4 Number 4
When Kairi peeped out of her hut the morning after the storm, she saw a cloud, small and white and wispy, scampering across the bright blue sky, even though the breeze barely rippled her untidy hair. Kairi ran to her mother, waving her arms. "It's going to rain again!"
Her mother, busy making balls of unleavened dough for flatbreads, came out, peered at the sky, and then frowned at Kairi. "That's a tiny cloud. Don't you know it can't rain?"
Kairi tossed her head. She might be only seven, but of course she knew that only dark and heavy clouds could send down rain! "I never said it would rain now. But just yesterday there was a storm, and today a cloud's back in the sky."
Her mother returned to the earthen stove and began a flurried clapping, flinging the ball of dough from one hand to another and back. The flatbread disc became larger and thinner, until she finally tossed it on the heated iron griddle. She looked gently at Kairi and sighed. "That storm rumbled like a hundred snoring gods, and its breath uprooted trees and blew off roofs, but our fields have already drunk up the water the skies shed last night. A toy-sized cloud won't be much use, even if it rained. Now go, and finish your chores."
Kairi went outside to check. Mother was right! The fields were wet, but where were the puddles of water for Kairi to splash in? Well, the next time it rained, maybe the ground would not be so greedy, Kairi told herself, as she put out fodder for the cows and fetched water from the well. Then, with a soft, freshly roasted flatbread in her hand, she clambered onto the black rock that towered over the village and jutted out against the sky. Sitting on the hard rock, Kairi gazed at the cloud and wondered when it would send enough rain to make pools and puddles to play in.
Days passed, then weeks, but the cloud did not even drizzle. The summer sun became hotter and hotter and stayed in the sky longer and longer. The parched surface of the fields split into large, jagged cracks. Villagers now often joined Kairi as she watched the cloud that would not rain.
One evening, as Kairi sat with her parents outside their hut, fanning herself with a straw pallet, she asked her father, "Father, what happens if the cloud never rains?"
The Headsman frowned. "Clouds are meant to rain."
Kairi knew that things didn't always happen the way they were supposed to. For example, even seven-year-old girls like Kairi should weave baskets, and string beads, and cook for the men. But all Kairi did was run in the fields and sing. Maybe this cloud was a disobedient cloud, a dreamer like her. "Father, suppose it doesn't rain?"
He sighed. "We need shallow fields with water for our paddy seedlings. We need water to drink, to wash. Our wells are drying, and I believe the river is drying, too. It has to rain soon. The gods cannot be so angry with us."
Kairi wanted rain, too. She wanted to jump in the puddles and make squelchy sounds. And her straw boat lay near her mattress, ready to race with other boats in water-filled furrows.
But even a week later, the cloud, now huge and gray, did not rain. Kairi watched her mother and other village women at the well every day, lengthening the rope tied to the pail they dipped in the well to draw water. Some men took carts to the river flowing to the north of the village, hoping to fill drums of water. They returned grumbling that only a trickle of water remained on the stony riverbed. They talked of going to the ocean much farther away, but Kairi knew they would not; ocean water smelled strange, tasted awful and left crusty white salt on everything.
Then, one day, the well water came up dark brown and green, with dead, stinking snakes floating in it. Upset villagers grouped around the Headsman. "You must make the cloud rain."
"I will call the Mighty Hunter to shoot down the cloud," he said.
The villagers nodded approvingly. The Mighty Hunter could kill any beast with his fierce bow. He would definitely force the cloud to rain!
The Mighty Hunter wanted a dozen sacks of rice. After receiving half the amount as advance, he went to the Black Rock. There, close to Kairi's favorite spot, he built a fire and added lard and secret herbs to it. As black, foul-smelling fumes rose, he drew his huge, polished bow and checked the pull of its string. He took an arrow from his quiver, dipped its head in the flames, and then, invoking the gods, he loosed the burning arrow at the cloud.
Kairi clung to her father. "Father, why does the Hunter shoot the cloud?"
"To force the cloud to rain," he replied.
The villagers formed a semi-circle around the Mighty Hunter, their eyes on the skies. The flaming arrow streaked bright red against the pale sky. The cloud seemed unafraid, though, because it did not move as the arrow came closer. Kairi and the villagers caught their breaths as they waited for the cloud to surrender. But just before the arrow touched it, the cloud shaped itself like a ring. The inner rim shone crimson red as the arrow passed through the hole. It looked very pretty, but it did not rain.
"That cloud is too arrogant," said the Hunter, after finishing the arrows in his quiver. "You need magic."
The Headsman paid the Mighty Hunter the remaining price. He would have paid him nothing, but they needed the Hunter for wild beasts and rogue elephants. He could not let the Hunter be angry with the village.
Then, the Headsman sent three youths to the witch doctor's village, with five goats and donkeys laden with sacks of grain. More gifts would follow after it rained.
The witch doctor arrived the next day, followed by the three village youths now carrying large pots and bundles of pungent herbs. After the Headsman and seniors greeted him, as befit his status, the witch doctor ordered the villagers to build a huge fire, much larger than the one built by the Hunter. The witch doctor applied red and black paint to his entire body, slipped on a skull necklace, and started dancing around the fire, chanting loudly in a language Kairi didn't know. Every few minutes, he pointed at the cloud, rattling a staff with red tassels and pieces of bone tied to it. As instructed, enthusiastic villagers added ingredients to a cauldron hung over the fire. They passed gourds full of fiery liquid among themselves, sang praises to the gods, and danced.
The dance went on all night. The witch doctor ordered the slaughter and roasting of two goats; the villagers ate them and continued to praise the gods. By morning, the witch doctor had fallen to the ground in exhaustion, along with most of the villagers.
The cloud, though, looked just the same.
"The gods are very angry with this village," the witch doctor said when he woke up late in the evening. "That is why this cloud refuses to rain." He gave a long list of sacrifices needed, including a dozen goats and many sacks of grain to be sent to his village.
"Our last crop failed," the Headman protested. "We cannot afford all of this."
"May the gods remain furious with you and punish you evermore," shouted the witch doctor, as he packed his cauldrons and the remaining wine.
As they watched the witch doctor going, the villagers mumbled that they could not let the gods remain angry with them. Just a few more days without rain and the rice crop would be ruined.
That evening, Kairi heard her mother whisper, "If it doesn't rain in a day or so, the villagers will overthrow you."
Kairi crept closer to see her father.
"What can I do?" The Headsman slumped on a grass mat. "That witch doctor was a fraud. Why else did the cloud refuse to rain?"
Kairi came out of her hiding place. "Father, let us talk to the cloud."
He gave a small laugh. "It is not that simple."
"If we can talk to the gods, and the gods can talk to the cloud, maybe we can talk to the cloud directly."
He stared at Kairi. "Try if you want. Anyway, nothing is working."
The next morning, Kairi woke up early. She wore her best cotton skirt and shiny red beads and ran to the Black Rock to get close enough to whisper to the cloud. The cloud was even darker that day, almost black, and Kairi thought it looked very sad.
"Cloud! " She spread her arms wide open. "Why don't you rain?"
She called out again and again, till her throat felt hoarse and dry. She slumped on the ground, wondering whether to continue, when she heard a low voice, soft and tired. "Are you talking to me? Why do you call me Cloud?"
Kairi looked around to check whether a village boy was playing a trick on her, but she was alone.
"Because that is your name," she whispered, her eyes back on the cloud.
This time she saw the cloud move as it spoke. "My name is Little One," the cloud replied. "That is the name my mother whispered to me before she vanished. No one has talked to me since then."
"The witch doctor talked to you a few days ago," Kairi said.
"That awful man who made the sky so hot that I moved away?"
"No, that was the Hunter. The witch doctor, oh well, never mind him. Why don't you rain?"
"What is rain?"
"You don't know?"
The cloud shook again. "There are so many things I don't know. I have been alone all my life. My mother couldn't teach me anything before she vanished. I am so lonely and tired, and my body hurts."
The cloud must have been born in that thunderstorm, thought Kairi, and its parents must have rained during the storm and got finished.
"You are a cloud, Little One," Kairi said with the patience her mother sometimes used with her. "And you are supposed to rain. You have to let your water fall on the ground."
"But if I do that, won't I die like my mother? I don't want to die."
Kairi thought of the way the rain sank into the soil and then made its way under the ground to wells. She thought of water that gathered in pools and rivers and went to the sea. She pictured steamy vapors rising from the lakes and rivers and seas when heated by the sun, their forming wisps of vapor that became fluffs and bigger fluffs and clouds.
"Your mother did not die, Little One," she said gently. "She is in the ocean now. And you will not die, too. You will join the rivers and oceans and meet your mother. You will feel happy and light and rise again to the skies. You will make many more clouds. Clouds live forever, and they delight, because they keep changing where they are. Clouds have a magic in them."
Then Kairi talked of the marvels of rain. She talked of the bright green shoots of paddy, poking from the shallow waterbeds; she talked of the silver bubbles in rapid streams, and she talked of rainbow-colored fish leaping in the rivers, splashing water.
Finally, the cloud sighed. "So what do I have to do? I am so tired that I would do anything to rest."
"Just let go," she whispered. "Let yourself rest on the earth."
And it did.