She could see the threatening glow gathering above the flat horizon in the East. The Hammer was rising.
Everyone else in the village had hidden themselves away- just as The Boundaries stipulated. The young mother was trying, but raising two young children alone was not easy, and getting them to move without violating the writings seemed impossible. They were always in danger of transgressing, and so, often in danger of dying. Every morning’s Heatrise was one of those times.
“Come on. Come on… but don’t hurry. Don’t….,” her voice grew loud in exasperation, but she caught herself and glanced around. Little children wanted to run. It seemed a perverse joke to give them desires that would only kill them.
Chai, the youngest slowed to a walk, trying not to make eye contact. Mother and daughter then waited on the ten year old boy to reach them. He was very pious.
“The moisture is not yours alone,” he chided his sister. “You have taken from the village.”
Slowly the mother bent down. Her son counted to see if the exertion was lawful. He could not imagine turning his mother in, but it was good practice and…she did play loose with the letter sometimes.
“Chai, my rose,” she took the little chin in her dry fingers. “The Boundaries are there because you will die without them. You must not run.”
The six year old turned and headed towards the tent. It was half the size it should have been. One of the ancient anchoring bolts had torn loose from the granite like earth, allowing that portion of the tent to collapse. It was decided by the village that since the woman and her children were without a man, the space would suffice. It would take the moisture surplus of the entire village to accomplish the needed drilling. Centuries of hammering by the sun had rendered the ground inviolable. It had been a thousand years since it had taken notice of men and women.
The sky was turning threateningly clear as the three undressed and placed the perspiration soiled garments in the collection bag. Their moving bodies threw very distinct shadows onto the ground, and the small family’s lapse in observance was threatening the ritual standing of the Collector and the guard who accompanied him. This was the last pickup. The collector had arranged it so, to give the young widow as much time as possible. He was a good man.
The two children relieved themselves into the chamber pot, and the mother signaled awkwardly with a smile that the collector should take it. She had no contribution to make to the village today.
The man reached out, but the boy stopped him. A dark orange rivulet ran down the inside of the dusty leg of his sister, and he smeared a cloth down it before carefully moving to place it into the collection bag. The gesture was in keeping with The Boundaries, but the collector found it distastefully self-righteous- especially coming from a boy so young. Then, making sure he was being watched, the boy spat into the cloth before carefully folding it and placing it back into the bag. You only saw such self sacrifice from those who were very holy or too young to understand.
His mother closed her eyes, fighting back the tears that were not hers to shed.
The collector smiled compassionately, his cracked lips forming the blessing of “God sees.” And he turned and headed towards the reclamation tent with the family’s offering.
“Shadow thrower,” the boy murmured contemptuously.
“Lie down. It’s almost daytime,” she said. “Go to sleep.”
Sometimes, she didn’t like the boy either.
Chai lay down beside her mother. The heat pressed on their exposed bodies like a weight. Outside the centuries old solar pounding began anew.
“Tell me again” the child asked “About the rose.”
“It’s an ancient thing, a beautiful thing that our Fathers lost untold ages ago,” the widow began. “My mother used to tell me that it was red like blood and opened like a twirling skirt.” Dancing was forbidden by The Boundaries– with a few clearly defined exceptions. So while living plants were mythical, twirling skirts were deliciously rare, and the comparison was magical.
“It grew- like a person grows- only in one place. With tiny fingers that pushed their way beneath the earth.” This was the most exotic of all.
“It was soft- like the inside of your cheek,” The child ran her tongue to see just how soft that must be as her mother continued “And between the small twirling skirt and the earth-fingers ran a long thin bone…only it was soft …but crunchy-like it had been left out after Heatrise, only it wasn’t dry; it was wet inside…Wet when you crunched it.”
The girl grinned.
“Was there only one?” she asked- knowing what her mother’s answer would be.
“No, my rose. There were as many as there are stars in the sky.”
“Will I see one?”
“Yes. When the Father-who-guards-the-boundaries gives us back all that we have destroyed…and even more.”
The child lay quietly for awhile before asking, “when will he forgive us. When will he give it back?”
“At the end, little rose. When the Hammer stops rising and all those who have shared their water with the village are given it back again, it will be as it was at the first- only better and ours forever. The whole world covered in roses of all kinds and water flowing everywhere- for everyone”
The child fell asleep. Her dreams were filled with bizarre images of twirling blood red skirts, crunchy moisture and shifting colors she mistook for green.
The nearly dehydrated condition of the villagers kept them asleep long after the Hammer had dropped out of sight. They would have to be awakened. The Guardians allowed them to rest, as the writings demanded. It was hours after nightfall before the ground’s absorbed heat was bearable. The Purifiers, however, had begun their work. Using techniques and incantations given countless ages ago in The Boundaries, these chosen few lifted the remnants of moisture from the offerings of the people.
Muffled words accompanied the skilled lifting of dry fingers and a small cloud appeared above a child’s tunic. Like a thread drawn from cloth, it was pulled upward and then dropped into a glass globe. Instantly it condensed into droplets, which hurried to pool at the base of the glass. Large billows were being formed with difficulty above the chamber pots before being deposited in the globes. The villagers called these gallon sized containers ‘seas,’ and they were the most sacred of the village’s possessions. Depending on the size of the offering, two Purifiers might be required to maintain control of a billowing harvest. An individual’s final offering almost always required three or more. A body was made mostly of water.
Of course The Well provided the foundation of the village’s existence, but it wasn’t enough. Each year the weighted harvesting cloths that were lowered into its depths sopped up less and less dampness. Even when left to absorb for a full day, the Purifier’s yield from the harvesting cloths shrank annually. The Guardian’s knew that the situation was desperate, but no more so than for those mangled beasts who had managed to survive without the Boundary’s direction- the Wildings.
Sometimes, because an individual had “shared his water” or because the daily harvest from the well was better than expected, a little bit could be put back for celebration and thanksgiving. The dancing was meager, but important.
This night was one of the dancing times. The strongest villagers would be given the stored extra water so they could dance in the stead of the others. Stories were told about a time when men and women were strong, straight and not thirsty. Their skin was supple and their eyes clear and they thought of more than the day’s water. Against the forgetting of their past they placed their dancing. Three times yearly, they danced in hope. A handful of dancers for the rest- to remind them that a day would come when everyone could move and drink prodigally whenever he or she desired it.
The dance tonight commemorated the giving of The Boundaries– the written guidelines that enabled them to live together with some memory that they were men and women.
The whole village had been awakened and was gathering for the daily rationing of provisions. Speculation ran high as to who would be chosen for the extra portions; it was a great honor…and the sensation of filling ones mouth with liquid was an exquisite one. Weak and expectant, the villagers took their place on the ground waiting for the selection.
Chai sat beside her mother, while her brother sat as close to the Guardians as possible. The chief of these slowly rose to speak, counting to himself so that his rising didn’t become illicitly fast. Chai’s brother was counting, too. He smiled at the elder’s care and integrity.
The guardian related how the villager’s God had given them The Boundaries so that they wouldn’t stoop to living off the blood of other men- as the Wildlings do. He told of their glorious past and of a coming age without dust or heat or thirst- a world of dripping excess.
A murmur started through the small crowd. A wisp of vapor began to form in the air above the Chief Guardian’s head. It grew and boiled until large enough to be lit from within by flashes of lightening. The rumblings took the villagers by surprise and they shrunk back in terror. No one dared to move. Not even the Chief Guardian dared speak, but he instinctively looked around to pinpoint each of the Purifiers. He didn’t know how they were doing this, but a harvest was being pulled from somewhere, and only a Purifier had the skill. He stopped before he had located them all. This was beyond their abilities. Moisture was coming from somewhere other than his village.
With a loud thunderclap the cloud divided neatly into six smaller versions of itself- each pulsating with light and bulging with wetness. They began to move, drifting slowly apart before stopping above the head of six of the villagers. Those six moved to escape, but as they moved, the clouds followed them. A woman screamed, and the villagers began to run. The Chief Guardian, indignant at the spectacle, yelled for them to stop. They paid him no mind. Tangles of people fell to the ground as weak legs collapsed under the demands of the panic. The elder swatted with his staff at one of the clouds as the villager it had attached itself to ran by.
“Harvest it!” he cried to the stunned Purifiers. “Harvest it now!”
Cracked lips began to move in incantation and wills reached out through grimy fingers in an attempt to control the clouds, but they would not bend to the Purifiers direction; instead they hovered steadily above the individuals they had selected.
Then the commotion stopped.
First one, then another and then another of the clouds let loose their showers on the heads of those six individuals. People turned in amazement. Silence replaced the roar of panic and everyone watched as water soaked tunics to the bodies that they covered. Six heads turned upward, and mouths opened to the downpour. The sight of men and women freely drinking broke the spell, and with shouts of excitement the fleeing circle collapsed back towards its center.
Desperate hands and parched faces dove for the downpour, but as quickly as it began, it ended. The villagers dropped to the ground, scrambling to soak up what remained. The shattered earth had swallowed the liquid into its deep cracks, and there was only the occasional tiny pool to be had. Some placed their faces to the earth in order to lap up the thin puddle. It was more than the Chief Guardian could stand.
“Stop! Stop!” he commanded. “This is transgression!”
The villagers stopped, and shaken, they looked his way.
He turned towards the six. The clouds still rumbled above their heads, and as they backed away from his approach, the clouds went with them.
The young widow was one of the six. Terrified she looked around for her children. The Guardian had singled her out and was heading towards her.
“You” he said with disgust. “Come here.”
Desperately she called for her youngest. Chai pushed her way through the forest of thighs that separated her from her mother. Unable to stand, the widow dropped to her knees. Her dry fingers palmed the parched ground in front of her and the transformation began.
An area extending twenty feet to her front began to subtly ripple, and as the villagers watched grass trembled upward until it hid the widow’s crouching form. The bright green area contrasted sharply with the broken world around it.
No one moved. The mother lifted her face in amazement. One of the other six slowly lowered himself to the ground and placed his palms on the earth. The cloud above his head rumbled and flared, and a stream of crystal water bubbled up through his fingers. He raised his hands and the spring gurgled on.
The third walked to the widening brook and a lay her hands on its bank. At first nothing happened, and then the ground boiled upward releasing the growth that shot skyward and out. An elm stood majestically above them. Its leaves hanging limp in the still air.
The fourth and fifth bent to the earth. The air was filled with the song of a sparrow and a honeysuckle vine lofted its perfume, though lying limp against the broken orange clay.
The bodies of the adults had kept Chai from seeing the miracles around her; she had finally reached her mother, now standing stunned in the grass. Small dirty fingers grasped her mothers limp hand and tugged downward for attention. Her little palm touched the earth, and instantly a teardrop shaped greenness began to form in the direction the child was facing. Realization slowly registered on the woman’s face. She looked to the right and extended her hand to the one closest. He shook his head and backed away. The mother’s cloud boiled with energy. Another man, one who had lapped the ground only moments before made his way slowly towards her. He took her hand; she smiled then looked in front of him expectantly. He knelt down, and the earth fluttered with new growth.
Some began to run away towards the protection of the tents. The Chief Guardian offered a rallying point with his staff. “Here!’ he called. “come to me!’
Others spontaneously joined hands and touched earth. A variety of healing resulted. Within minutes both Oak and Elm lined the bank of the chilly stream. Chipmunks and rabbits darted behind an apple tree heavy with fruit. Flowers swayed softly.
The sixth villager tentatively reached downward. He was timid and afraid of the unknown sensation awaiting him. Nothing happened. The joyful spell was broken with the failure. Everyone was looking towards the sixth cloud bearer. He touched the earth again and again and eyes searched the sky and grass for changes.
The small irregular shape of paradise stood quiet, surrounded by the global parchedness… until a child’s voice broke the silence.
“Look at the seas,” she cried and all eyes turned towards the glass globes. Dark wine was bubbling over the brim and spilling unto the ground. The community cheered with joy. They knew nothing of the wine’s magic; only that it was magic. That was enough.
Chai knelt down, disappearing in the grass, and plucked a rose for her mother. She wondered how long the crimson petal would last once the Hammer rose in the morning.
She knew the answer, but it didn’t matter, not really. She understood what the presence of the cloud meant- this place was theirs to recreate each day.
She looked about at the joyful faces gathering around the Cloud Bearers. She knew the others were peering from the dimness of the tents, and she knew that out beyond the darkness stalked the Wildings. Instinctively, she felt what this meant, as well. The new reality had brought with it a new people, and this people- by its simple existence- stood distinct from both Villager and Wilding; for both existed only under the certainty of the Hammer’s power.
She turned to run to her mother, and for the first time in untold centuries, the sound of splashing feet scattered outward into the dryness of the shadows.