“Cloudbringer” by Tess Allard

07 December 2018 on Fiction   Tags: ,

Kate is sixteen, willowy, freckled. Her calico dress is hemmed for a girl an inch shorter. She is standing in the dusty square and watching the man with the rain machine.

His sleeves are rolled up to his elbows as he pontificates on the wonders of his invention to the crowd. He has not yet removed the burlap to reveal it. Kate sees that he has practiced this speech; it has the air of finely crafted showmanship, pauses in all the right places, language flowery enough to draw attention but not so much as to alienate.

The man is young, fox-faced, eager. His clothes are clean and city-bought: patent leather loafers, crisp white shirt, buttoned vest, and driving cap. Black slacks with perfectly ironed creases, though they have already begun to collect dust. He is alluring. He could run circles around the dull-eyed farm boys that loll in the sparse shade on the edges of the square.

I can bring the rain, he says. I can wake you from this nightmare.

*

As Kate chops the sinewy rabbit for the evening's stew she thinks about the promise of rain. Is it cruel to raise people's hopes like that, or is he just another man doing what he has to to survive? Kate twists open a jar of beets, listens to its hiss and crack. She knows there are only three full shelves left in the cellar. Cobwebbed glass refracting dim light: the last remnants of what now seems like an unfathomable bounty.

Tonight there is bread and butter. Kate mops up the last drops of stew with a ragged slice, revealing the plate's glazed wheat-stalk pattern. Her father is still in work clothes, his hat laid on the table beside his plate. There is dirt under his nails. He eats as if this is the way of things, as if men are always dirty at the table.

If her father were a different person, Kate would tell him the news she learned in town: Susan Anders is pregnant, Joe Don's boy has taken off, the Smithfields' last cow has died. A man all the way from Chicago has come in on the train and is promising to make it rain. Instead she chews and studies the glazed blue stalks of wheat.

*

On Monday the man is in the square again, surrounded by a throng of bystanders. The burlap is off his machine. It is a simple box, steel, highly polished, the height of a man's knee. It glints hard and bright in the sun.

Watch, says the man, and begins turning a wooden crank on the side of the box.

Small, bright cumulous wisps are scattered piecemeal through the sky. The man sweats, turning the crank vigorously. Some kind of steam or smoke rises, translucent, from vents on the top. It shimmers like distant heat. Restrained frenzy shines behind the man's eyes. Kate thinks he's going to give himself a conniption.

The wind moves the clouds across the sky, faster now, but they are still white and sparse. Rivulets of sweat run down the man's temples. His crisp shirt wilts. Kate watches the muscles churning in his arms.

An old man across the square, with a face like a puckered potato, shakes his head, turns, wanders into the shade. Dust begins to move in the wind; the people in the square stir uneasily, pulling handkerchiefs from their pockets.

No dust storm, says the man, breathless, cranking. Just rain.

Wind stirs loose strands of Kate's hair, but the prairie is still—just flat, cracked hardtop and drifts swept up against the fences. Nothing looms on the horizon. The wisps of spun sugar in the sky seem to slowly converge. A few people wander away; the others watch with a guarded curiosity, their hat brims tilted upward to see.

Thicker clouds, now: a hint of gray, or wishful thinking? The man's movement is obscured through the shimmer of steam. Kate can't help but watch him. A stranger, a snake-oil man. But he is alien and fascinating. Kate imagines speaking to him, inviting him to dinner (in this fantasy, no father), drawing his interest with the placement of her hand. Sitting with him on the train to Chicago, in a car with lush seats, lunch served on trays, translucent paper shades to block the sight of the barren land.

Kate feels something land on her arm, tickling her skin. Water, a single drop. She searches the sky, sees only those wisps with casts of gray. The drop trembles between the hairs on her arm.

There are sparse, dark spots in the dust below their feet; ten, maybe, spread about. Some of the townspeople have noticed. A low hum of talk begins to rise. The man stops cranking, his chest heaving in and out. He pulls a perfect bone-white handkerchief out of his pocket and mops his forehead.

Five hundred dollars, good folks, he says. That's all I ask to bring the rain.

*

Kate does not need to tell her father, this time; he has heard. All the people lined up to fill their buckets from her father's well are talking about it, details changing as it passes from mouth to mouth: it was luck; he's a quack; I felt the raindrops myself; he summoned forth a giant cloud and it poured on the square. Kate's father listens without comment, collecting quarters in a coffee can. Kate wants to stay and hear what everyone has to say, but a look from her father tells her it is time to water their meager patch of crabgrass and let the cows out to graze.

Kate goes around back of the house, hooks the hose to the water barrel, strings it out to the pasture. As she sprays the browning grass she thinks of the townspeople lined up all the way back to the road, how dear those quarters are, how much money the water coursing through her hands would cost for them. It is providence, her father says, that they have this bottomless well. They thank the Lord for His bounty every night before they eat.

The skinny cows graze. Their milk will be off-white, tinged with something sour. The butter will be well enough. For now these creatures are still alive; there are still fresh things to be had. Kate leans back against the fence and studies the sky. No clouds anymore. Just bright, unyielding blue.

*

Kate lingers outside the Cornerstone Hotel until she sees the man come out. His shirt is dingy now, but she can see before he puts on his hat that his hair is clean and freshly combed. She wonders what he does in Chicago, what anyone does in Chicago, where there are no cows to milk or steer to herd or seeds to futilely sow. She steps across his path as he walks.

My name is Kate, she says. I watched your demonstration.

He tips his hat. My pleasure, he says. Jonathan.

What's your machine made of? What's in it?

Ah, says Jonathan. Trade secrets, my lady.

Kate is not used to this affected manner. Certainly she does not possess it herself. She finds herself interrogating him: is he an inventor by trade? From where does he hail? What is it like living in a place that's always lit, where people don't pay to haul water from their neighbors' wells? He is all too happy to answer; he does the talking as they navigate the dusty streets. She learns that he is twenty-five, a shopkeeper's son, gifted since childhood with an eye for the impossible. Eventually he stops in front of a white clapboard house that Kate knows to be Doc Hanson's.

Some men of the town are interested, says Jonathan. They'll want to negotiate.

Five hundred dollars, says Kate. It's a hard pill to swallow.

A man has to eat, says Jonathan. Before Kate realizes what is happening he has taken her hand and made a flourish with his other, bidding her farewell. He is simultaneously captivating and ridiculous. His hands are alarmingly soft.

*

Kate's father thinks Doc Hanson's meeting is foolish beyond belief. He stands in the yard with the neighbors, chewing tobacco, spitting to punctuate. He alternates between listening in silence and talking over the others with his incontrovertible opinions.

Learned man like that, he says. You bet yer ass I ain't going to him next time I need a boil lanced.

No, sir, say the farmers.

Ain't nothing in that little box. Just smoke and mirrors. God wants to give us rain, He'll give it. We ain't fools.

No, sir, we ain't.

You just watch him get run out of town when that little box don't do a thing. Get his head bashed in.

Yessir, say the farmers.

Kate sits and listens. She is supposed to be milking the cows. She can hear their mournful lowing back beyond the house. Their udders are swollen; she should relieve them; they can do nothing to ease their pain. But she cannot tear herself away. She wants to know everything that everyone thinks. Surely there are men in town, now, having the opposite discussion: he can save us, he can work miracles, he can give us back our lives. Kate watches her father, his jaw moving rhythmically like a cow chewing cud, and wonders what is so bad about the promise of rain. If it rains, they can sow and tend and harvest. Their stores will be full of wheat. They will not stand in the sun collecting quarters and watching half the county lined up for water. They will have honest work again. If it is a fraud, some fools will be out of their money. What does it matter? It angers her father, as many things do, but she is not privy to his thoughts.

Kate does not know what she believes about the truth of it. Just a simple metal box. If that's all it is, why has no one else come upon this revelation? Why Jonathan, of all people? But she finds herself thinking not of verdant fields but of streets thronged with life, buildings stacked up upon themselves, electric-lit windows shining out into a shallow night.

*

It is Doc Hanson's decision in the end. He and nine other men, fifty dollars apiece. They stand in the square with Jonathan. They shake his hand. They ask him, when shall we start? Will the rain come and come until the land is live again?

Jonathan studies the sky. Not today, he says. There must be some clouds.

Tomorrow, then.

If there are clouds.

Tomorrow, say the men.

Perhaps.

Do you have all your provisions?

I'll need the money. I need fuel.

You'll be watched, say the men.

Yes, says Jonathan. That's all right.

He eats that night at the Cornerstone. Kate wants to enter but she knows her father is there, that half the town is there, that Jonathan and his miraculous machine have taken on the air of a traveling circus. She wonders: how does he eat? Does he cut symmetrical squares from his steak, each perfectly pierced? Does he chew one hundred times before he swallows?

There aren't windows on the first floor, but no matter—she can picture it well enough: Doc Hanson and his men congratulating each other on their good fortune; Kate's father and his men smoldering with liquor, casting pointed glances Jonathan's way. Kate sits in the shadows around the corner from the door. Men drift out intermittently. By nine o'clock most of them have gone home, including Doc Hanson, but her father remains. She expects he will remain until they shutter the doors, worked up as he is over this.

And then, there is Jonathan—stepping out the door, leaning against the wall, looking up into the star-strewn sky. No one follows. He is allowed some measure of freedom, she supposes. After all, his box and other things are all still upstairs. She comes out from around the corner and startles him.

Why, Kate, he says, composing himself. To what do I owe the pleasure?

I was waiting for you.

Now why's that?

She says nothing, only smiles. She looks up to the sky, follows his gaze around the Big Dipper, the empty ladle.

Would you like to go for a walk? she says.

Certainly.

She takes him around the edges of town, where they will not be watched. They walk along the borders of empty fields. They trail along the barbed-wire fences. She would prefer that they walk in silence, but Jonathan begins holding forth; high words about science, about destiny, about harnessing nature. This does not interest her. She nods politely.

They come to the old Denton farm, abandoned now six months. The skeleton of a mowing machine lies half-buried in the dust. The rickety hay shack stands stark in the middle of the emptiness, silhouetted against the stars. Kate drops her hand loose by her side, glances at Jonathan from the corner of her vision. His hand brushes hers. Soft. He takes it and holds it and looks her in the eye.

You are so beautiful in the starlight, he says.

Kate, for a moment, wants to laugh. She cannot see through his theatrical persona; is he sincere? No matter, she thinks. No matter.

I want to know all about you, says Kate, and brushes his cheek just barely with the back of her hand. He moves in to kiss her. She lets him.

*

The next day Jonathan is summoned to the square to observe the thin threads of white across the sky. He nods seriously. He takes his burlap-covered box from the strained arms of the farm boy who carries it and places it on the ground.

I may need help to crank it, he says. Let the strongest of you come forward.

There is a dull murmur; what kind of man cannot sustain such mild labor? But Kate has to admit that the effort had seemed strenuous. Who knows what lurks inside that shining shell? Jonathan takes off his cap, shakes it out, wipes his hair back, replaces it.

All right, he says.

He removes the burlap and the sun shatters off the brilliant metal. He bends down, examines something on the side of the box. He looks out briefly over the townspeople, then takes a knee and grabs the crank.

All right, he says again, his voice quieter this time.

Once more it is the same labored display: Jonathan sweats, the cords rise in his arms, the crank makes a vague ticking as it turns. The world awaits its gift. But Kate does not see the shimmer this time. Nothing seems to rise from the vents. She looks at Jonathan, trying to catch his eye; he is too focused to see her, but there is some small measure of fear in his face. He turns, turns. The clouds above do nothing. Finally he stops, drawing his handkerchief across his face.

I'll need a strapping lad, he says, breathless, flashing a weak grin. The boy who'd carried the box steps forward.

Just turn it, counterclockwise. Away from you. Quick as you can.

The boy nods, puts his dusty, overalled knees in the dirt, follows the instructions. He looks surprised at the strength it requires. He puts on his own show, too, sweating less but still exerting. Still no vapor, no gathering clouds. Jonathan is clearly growing concerned. Murmurs arise from the crowd, the people shifting.

Now, folks, says Jonathan. Perhaps it's gone out of alignment—if you'll allow me to get my tools—

Snake oil, calls a man from the crowd.

It's a delicate machine, says Jonathan. Beads of sweat spring from his forehead. It must be tuned just right. My tools—

You think we're gonna let you leave?

It's Kate's father's voice, bellowing. She hadn't even known he was here—but then, where else would he be? He is stepping forward, toward the center of the circle. Everyone watches.

Man such as you, he says, jabbing his finger in the air. Coming here with your fancy clothes, scheming to take honest men's money . . .

It's a cost, stammers Jonathan. I will bring you rain, I swear it.

Where's the rain, then? Do you see rain, folks? Do you see growing things?

A general din begins to arise. Doc Hanson steps out in front, hands held aloft. People, he says. Let's be civilized.

Someone throws an empty tin can. It misses Doc Hanson's forehead by three inches and clatters off Jonathan's box. Jonathan ducks, and this starts the crowd rumbling again.

The aggression in the square feels like a black dust storm rolling in. Kate sees it but can do nothing; she can only hope to take shelter. Jonathan has slung his satchel over his shoulder and is hurriedly trying to pack up his box. A man tears the burlap from him, shoves him back. Another comes with a crowbar. Together they maim the box, hunting its weak points, trying to pry it open. Dents become sharp lines of refracted light. It comes loose at one corner, and they tear; soon one side is entirely free. Inside is a heavy counterweight attached to the crank. Inside is simple air.

Run, run, thinks Kate, willing Jonathan to hear her, to take sudden flight. They'll skin you alive, don't you understand?

He stands there, uncomprehending. His words are nearly lost in the clamor.

No, no, he says. This is all wrong. Where are the mechanics? Where is my machine?

Damn your machine, yells someone, and the crowd echoes in chorus.

Finally Jonathan takes off, sprinting. There is a moment of stillness and then five or six men follow, Kate's father leading them. They spin off across the fields. Kate feels everything dissolve before her eyes.

*

The men have not returned when the darkness first appears on the midday horizon. The talk is that Jonathan has escaped them somehow, craftily slipped away and found a place to hole up. Kate is hanging the laundry. She stops, stares at the encroaching storm, unpins the wet clothes, and puts them back in the baskets. She must bolt the windows, secure the livestock, close herself inside before the dust comes rolling. But she lingers. She thinks. They have not caught him yet.

She finds herself, instead, packing a small bag and filling a jar with water and walking out over the fields, drawn by some sourceless magnetism, the wind beginning to strengthen, the first grains of dirt rising in a slow pirouette from the sunbaked land. She follows backward their walk of the night before. The prairie dims around her. She stops at the Denton farm, looking out over the field, the blackened hay shack, the vaguest of footprints leading toward it. She hops the barbed wire. There is no living thing in sight.

Jonathan is there, and this somehow does not surprise her; she is learning to take these things in their course. He throws his hands over his face when she opens the door.

It's me, she says.

What on earth?

A black roller's coming in.

Are they here?

No. Just me.

Goddamn.

As the wind starts to howl and the light dims further, Kate dips two handkerchiefs in the jar of water. They tie them around their faces; they breathe in damp cotton. They listen: the howl, the shaking of boards, the din of a hundred million grains of dirt and gravel thrust against the shack's tin roof. Outside, through the tiny window, it is coffee-colored twilight, the world fading to nothing fifty feet out, blue static sparks leaping along the barbed-wire fences. A world that no longer wants its people.

It was supposed to work, says Jonathan.

It's no matter.

Someone sabotaged my machine.

No matter.

Jonathan looks blankly out the window, the storm-brought dusk reflecting in his watery, pale eyes.

I don't understand, he says.

Listen, says Kate, and she makes it sound easy: sneak out in the storm, when no man dares be about; catch the next train and be gone. She makes herself sound indispensable. She will be indispensable, in Chicago; she will find a way to be wholly necessary so she never has to see this town again.

Jonathan seems to be steeling his courage. Kate guesses he has never seen a dust storm before. The noise is astounding. She stands, squints, looks out the window: vague shapes of debris, tumbleweed, strange shadows in the clouds. They should run. They should go now.

How will we keep from getting lost?

The fences, says Kate.

Are you sure?

Get ready, says Kate, and opens the door. They have no goggles; they must squint their vision so narrow that the world looks like nothing at all. Jonathan fumbles with his satchel until Kate snatches it from him and throws it over her shoulder. The sand slaps their faces and hands, a thousand tiny stings. If Kate reached out and touched Jonathan she would knock him over with the shock of her body's static. Some people in town thought the first storms were signs of the apocalypse. The dust clouds blacked out the sun; they turned the land alien; blue fire raced along the fences. Now it is routine. The world ends over and over.

Kate and Jonathan struggle their way forward, groping. Kate tries to keep a line on where they are. They must be nearing the road. The train tracks are beyond, on the other side of the sand-swept gully. Kate guesses it must be close to five o'clock, and if they're lucky the 5:15 will be rolling through soon—it won't stop, not in this storm—but it can't move very fast, either. She hears Jonathan breathing heavy behind her. He's not holding his handkerchief tight enough, she thinks. He's drawing dust into his lungs.

She can see the fence now, marking the edge of the field. Blue static sparks along its length, gathering in fleeting globes at the barbs and discharging upward. It is breathtaking in its way. They climb over, careful not to touch it. Jonathan trips and rolls in the dust, losing his handkerchief and fumbling blindly until it is found. Now the gully. The land is clear in Kate's mind, though obscured; it should be only a few yards, and then they wait. She moves purposefully, slow enough for Jonathan. The dust whips and whirls in the air; ground and sky are meaningless distinctions; there is only gravity. And here, the tracks. Blue flames along the rails. Kate hunkers down in the sparse chaparral.

Will there be a train? asks Jonathan. He is looking around like a hunted rabbit.

God willing.

How long must we wait?

'Til it comes, says Kate.

My machine. Jonathan's voice seems to come from far away, like it's coming through a radio. It's all ruined. It's gone.

Do you have the money?

In the satchel.

The bag feels heavier, suddenly, on Kate's shoulder. Five hundred dollars is a mighty sum. You can start over, she says.

My plans, says Jonathan, but Kate cannot hear what he says next. The wind picks up, howling, but behind that Kate is sure she can hear what she's seeking: the screech and chug, the whine of the tracks, the pounding rhythm of an oncoming train. She stands up straight. The first thing she sees are the sparks, thrown in massive arcs from the wheels, and then it comes into view: the thundering beast, shrouded in a glow of electricity. Salvation.

Be ready, says Kate. It won't slow. We jump.

Jonathan is silent. She hears his breath quicken.

Her hands are ready, her knees coils set to spring. She shifts the weight of the satchel. She stands with legs spread. The engine nears, then rushes past, pulling a maelstrom of dust into its wind-tunnel corridor, and Kate yells to Jonathan and springs outward and grabs the first ladder she sees and feels the ground disappear from beneath her. Her legs swing wildly. Her body slams against steel. Static courses through her and she nearly bites open her lip. She scrambles, tries to find her center of gravity, her shoes scuttling against rivets and seams, looking for a perch. Finally her feet find a rung. She is fully blind, eyes squeezed shut against the onslaught of dirt. She feels her way upward, to the top of the car. It is smooth; she lies down. She ventures to squint one eye open and sees that she is atop a tank car. The train stretches on behind her until it vanishes into the storm. But Jonathan is not there. She cannot see the land they left from. She cannot see a human figure anywhere. Has he caught on to the back half of the train? Has he fallen beneath its wheels? Is he standing back there still in the chaparral, waiting for the mob to find him? Her heart quickens, but when she touches the satchel her pulse steadies again, becoming the rhythm of the train, relentless, steadfast steel.

Kate turns and squints past the engine to the world ahead. She can't make out much through the haze of dust, but she knows where these tracks lead: the teeming city, its shining towers, its colored lights painting the streets. Somewhere up there, things look clearer. She can almost see the sky.

*

Tess Allard is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, by way of Connecticut and New Mexico. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Hayden's Ferry Review, Pleiades, Black Warrior Review, Jellyfish Review, and Electric Literature's Recommended Reading. Her short story, "The World Holds What It Remembers Most," was selected as the fiction winner in Black Warrior Review's 2017 contest. She spends her free time gardening, exploring nature, and seeking out strange places. You can find her on Twitter at @astralsled, or visit her at her website, tessallard.com.

"Throne of Francis" is a photograph by Kevin Gross. A climber, skier, artist, and explorer, Kevin is an earth science and studio art student at Dartmouth College. His photography has been published by or has won contests hosted by the Los Angeles Times, the National Park Service, and Dartmouth College, among others. You can find him on Instagram at @kodeza

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