The fierce midday light accentuated the fissures in the baked earth around our farmhouse, making them look like the collapsed arteries supporting a cadaver’s withered heart.
At the rear of the property, Pop was wrestling with our water well’s crank handle, as if he was a deranged organ grinder extracting music by force from some obstinate contraption.
Inside the kitchen, I could hear the mournful tune of the aluminium bucket as it clunked and clanked its way down the rough-hewn shaft. It had the dreadful chime of a lost waif rapping on untold doors in the vain hope of a warm welcome and a place to rest.
A pitiful splash reverberated up the deep borehole and the desiccated rope snapped taut at its full extension releasing a column of dust and grit.
Pop removed his floppy bush hat and wiped his brow. Turning to face me, he raised his headgear aloft. I waved in return from behind the rear kitchen window.
“I told you it’d be fine.” He shouts.
We have water for today, but tomorrow? Who knows?
It’d been two years since we had a good downpour hereabouts. Pop’s been predicting a heavy rainfall for months now. He’s been saying it’s about to happen since early April when he expected showers to arrive. Then he said we would get rain back in May, and it didn’t happen then either.
“‘Never cast a clout ‘til May is out,’” he said, at the end of that month.
We haven’t had running water for nine months now. The pressure diminished at first and then the taps dribbled and spluttered, and at last the water stopped. At least we’ve got the well, I suppose; we need to be thankful for that.
It’s so hot now that we never open the curtains at the front of the house. It’s our only way to control the temperature inside here during the day, apart from opening all the doors and windows and praying. Most evenings we stay on the veranda until the early hours and hope an eighteen-wheeler will speed past us; just to feel a cool breeze.
Pop’s getting on. He’s not as young as he used to be, but neither of us are Spring chickens anymore. I watch him as he hauls up the full bucket from the well below. He’s struggling these days as the bucket goes lower and lower. I can see him testing his strength with that wretched, winding arm. If the water table drops any more, we’ll have to find a longer rope, or extend the current one somehow.
It’s never been the same since they abandoned that local fracking site last year. There’s probably no connection, however we can’t help wondering about the drop in the level. Is it just the drought? I guess we’re lucky that our water supply is still drinkable. We’ve read horror stories about drilling companies deserting sites and leaving behind both poisoned wells and flammable water pouring out of bath taps.
“Hey, Pop,” I shout, approaching him across the yard. “Need a hand?”
“I thought you’d never ask,” he says, grinning as he rests the battered pail on the low stone wall at the top of the well.
“Is that it?” I ask, peering inside at its meagre contents.
“You know what?” he says. “I reckon it’ll rain today, love.”
“Oh yeah?” I say, rubbing his shoulder with my out-stretched hand. “How do you---”
“It always rains the first week of August---”
“It’s Saturday today, Pop,” I say, sighing as his back stiffens under my touch. “We’ve got little time left this week and---”
“Trust me, love,” he says, furrowing his forehead and replacing his hat. “I just know.”
“Cup of coffee, then?” I ask, taking the bucket from him.
“I guess it’s always that time,” he says. “I just feel it.”
By our bed upstairs, I folded Pop’s shirts and trousers; laid out enough of his pants, socks, and tee-shirts to last a week. There were essentials to pack too; a soap bag of essentials with tooth paste and brushes, shampoo and a comb and nail scissors. That framed black and white wedding picture always brought us good luck and reminded me, at least, of innocent times; of hope and making a life together.
Packing our suitcases was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to since we got married. The rain wasn’t coming today. It’d be just like yesterday and the day before that. Yesterday was happening all over again and again and again, forevermore.
As I packed and gathered our possessions, Pop brushed away the detritus and dried up remnants in our garden. I peered down to watch his antics down in the back yard. He was measuring out a perfect circle in the dirt with a seven feet long branch. I knew Pop was in a world of his own when I married him; they all warned me, but it was part of the attraction. After twenty-five years together, I was wondering whether I’d reached a saturation point. How could he be out there and tidying up the yard right now? There was so much to organise up inside. I wandered back to the open window to give him a piece of my mind and couldn’t help but notice he was collecting rocks and assembling them round the circumference of his design. He was shirtless now and covered in dark patterns and muddy streaks.
Pop’s things were simple to assemble. He didn’t care to take anything with him other than the clothes he was wearing; a spare shirt and smalls, maybe. The second suitcase was always going to difficult. What would I take? What would I need to take to remember our time together? Would I want to remember all those moments or start from a clean slate? What if I could wash those memories away and have a fresh start?
In the kitchen, I’ve finished preparing our last meal together in the old house; a home for twenty-five years. It’s our silver anniversary this year; in September, on the twenty-first.
I wonder if Pop will forget about it this year? Will he want to remember our time together in this sacred spot?
He’s out there now and hopping around his circle; kicking up a dust storm and covered in hieroglyphs. They warned me about him, but I’ve said that. I say it all the time, don’t I?
“Pop! Pop!!” He turns to look and waves. “Come and eat, Pop!”
“Give me ten!” he says and continues his dancing and wailing noises.
Later on, I paused on the doorstep with a suitcase in each hand and looked upward. The heavens above were chalkboard black and furious. The sky swirled as if it were uncomfortable with itself and eager to shed its troubles. Swollen clouds ruptured and disgorged their first hoard with the selfish reluctance of city brokers who’ve long-preached Keynesian trickle-down economics. When they arrived, the first precious drops pattered on the pathway in front of us and the parched land on either side. The ground hissed with relief as it absorbed the initial impacts. Pop released the cases from my determined fingers and let them fall on the boards below. “I told you,” he said.
“I know, I know,” I said, lowering my head.
“I promised you.”
“You knew, didn’t you?” I lifted my gaze to meet him.
Pop shook his head as he peered into my eyes and clasped my hands in his.
Rain fell pattering and echoed through the dark corridors of our silent home. It fell cool at the open windows and sent rivulets of grit scurrying away in fright. Droplets arrived in increasing numbers and rinsed down the baked floorboards of the porch and soaked our shoes and ankles as we held each other.
Way up on our rooftop it clattered down on the black slates, leaving momentary impressions to be swept aside by the oncoming deluge. It spattered on our rusted car, where we’d left it last November, on bricks and awaiting repair, outside the garage. Its dry soft top darkened as the sun-bleached material absorbed the rain that also washed the windows to reveal the hidden interior once more. Even the dormant saguaro cactus by our gate looked happier somehow, and the rain barrels sang a merry pitter-patter song as they filled to overflowing. The gentle weight and pressure confounded the guttering and sent translucent curtains of water cascading to obscure our view.
The downpour could have lasted a lifetime or maybe only a few minutes.
A simultaneous crack and flash with the intensity of a million light bulbs explodes in the sky and envelopes us in its pure white light. For a moment it freezes a million droplets mid-flight and in the immediate darkness that follows, they continue to fall unseen. We hear another rumble; it’s seven seconds away now and continues on its journey into the night.