We are sharing a very moving and perhaps timely story from Johan Willcocks:
Without the Rain
by Joan Willcocks
The horizon is a pencil stroke of purple between the brutal orange of the land and the sour yellow of the sky. It is like being trapped between two halves of a baking shell. All around heat devils spiral out of the ground like an invading army paying homage to their cruel master, the Sun. Mala puts her arm into one and the light shimmers golden upon her skin.
Her brother is crying again, the harsh sobs that choke on air so hot it burns throat and lungs. Mala puts her hands over her ears to shut out the sound. She is hungry too. They all are. Her mother tries to feed him, but her breasts are like shrivelled prunes against ribs that show all too clearly the skeleton she will soon become.
There are only old men and sick boys in this camp. As soon as they are strong enough to work the men with guns take the young men away. The women pray that their sons will be too weak to be of use, but the men don’t listen to prayers; they take them anyway. They are the same men who bring food. The people in the camp know when they are coming from the dust clouds thrown up by the convoy long before the trucks can be seen.
“Why do some of the older girls cry when they see the men coming? It makes me glad because it means we can eat.” Mala asks in innocence.
“I give thanks to the Divine Spirit that you are still too young to know the answer to that question.” Her mother puts her hand protectively on Mala’s head and looks at her with a stricken expression on her face.
Her mother finds the constant questions hard to deal with. “Daughter, there are some things it is better that you do not know.”
With her special wisdom Mala understands that it is not to protect her child that her mother refuses to speak about these things. If she says them out loud they will become real, and that would be impossible for her to bear.
“How much black bread would one of those rifles buy?” Mala asked once when they were queuing beside the trucks.
“Hush child!” Her mother put a hand over Mala’s mouth in warning. “Our lives depend on those men. It would not do to offend them.”
Her mother’s name is Patience. She knows because that is what she hears the other women call her.
“Patience girl” the older women say to her. “You are little more than a child yourself. Your husband may have been taken from you, but at least you have your babies. Part of your heart hasn’t been ripped out and buried in some forsaken place you will never see again.”
Her mother folds her hands together and looks at her feet in the way that seems like acceptance, but is really defiance. The women may be older than her in years, but she outranks them in wisdom. Patience is very knowledgeable about the old beliefs. That is why some of the women fear her – they confuse knowledge with witchcraft.
“They are ruled by superstition,” she tells her daughter. “Hanging charms at the door of the tent will not placate Nature for the sins of our forebears. Your papa understood that the Earth is making us pay for the greed of those who lived before.”
Mala does not know her papa’s name. Her mother always called him husband. He always called her wife. Mala remembers the night he left them; how her mother clung to him as the tears ran down his face and into his beard. He swung his daughter up and squeezed her against his heart until she thought she was going to burst.
“Be a brave girl Mala. I need you to be strong for mama while I am gone.”
As he walked away the light from the setting sun attached a long, thin shadow to his heel that matched him stride for stride. In her memory that shadow has taken on more substance than the person ever had.
That was before her mother’s belly grew big with her brother.
“Your father had to leave us to go and work for the soldiers in the city. It is hard for a man who has known no master but himself.” Her mother puts up her shrivelled, old-woman’s hand to shade her eyes and scans the horizon with that curious mixture of desperation and hope.
“How will he know how to find us? We have moved so many times.”
“He will know.” It is her mantra. Mala wonders which of them she is trying to convince.
To stay too long in daylight outside the shelter of the tent is suicide. As a way of passing the time Patience tells her daughter tales passed down through her family; of people living in houses made of bricks, and water that came through taps which they could turn on whenever they wanted. The only taps Mala knows of are on pipes that stick out of the ground. They are not allowed to turn the taps on themselves; they are guarded by men in uniforms to stop people taking more than their share of the water.
Her mother says that people used to wash themselves and their clothes every day. Washing is now a sin. Patience says that when her great grandmamma was a little girl there was so much water falling from the sky that you could splash your feet where it lay on the ground. The earth was soft and brown. Grass grew everywhere, and every spring brought flowers that bloomed in all the colours you can imagine. There were trees that turned green with life in the summer and stark and black against the winter frosts. Mala does not understand snow and ice. How can water become solid? Such things are part of the old-time magic that her mother calls science. To Mala they are as much a fantasy as the stories in the books that her mother tells her about. Like houses, words are no longer permanent. Books became too much of a burden for heavily-laden backs. Now Mala practices her writing in earth so desiccated it fills in the letters before she can complete them.
The night-time purple of the horizon has bled into the orange and yellow of the fading day. They are in a world of shadows where land and sky merge into each other. There will be a few blessed hours when the heat drops from punishing to almost bearable and they can finally leave the meagre shelter of their tents. Patience is in conference with some of the other women.
“This camp is twice the size it used to be.”
“There are too many of us already and people are still coming.”
“The water hole will soon run dry.”
“We will have to pack up and move on again.”
Mala can hear the fear in their voices at the prospect of another long trek on empty hearts and empty bellies.
A non-existent breeze ruffles the walls of the tent and Mala shivers even though she has never known what it is like to be cold. She wanders off into the emptiness. Behind her the camp is a collection of black patches against the boundless night. They used to have fires to show that this is a place where people live, but there is nothing left to burn. Above her, the moon is a thin sliver of silver struggling to show itself amidst a spangle of stars.
Her mother has told her that every one of those stars is a planet and each of them is different. Patience says that the world on which they live is also a star and it too shines brightly in space. Mala looks up in wonder at the magnificence created by those millions of other planets and imagines what it would be like to live in a world where the rain still comes.