WHAT HAPPENS WHEN IT RAINS by Michelle Angwenyi
Wherever you go, however much you change, there are things that will not.
There are placeless, immortal, immoral things, incapable of growing weary.
You can start running away today. They will wait for you at the finish line.
When I was six years old, my mother died. It had been raining the whole day. I was too young to understand anything else that happened in the village at the time, but I can never forget how still my mother lay in her room, her face not her face anymore, her skin tight over her forehead. My grandmother was there, and in the odd silence that persevered despite the commotion outside the house, covered my mother’s face with the purple scarf that she always wore around her head. I will never forget how my grandmother took me out of the room through a screaming crowd of villagers that had gathered at the door of our house. We moved fast through the forest behind our house to where my grandmother lived at the foot of a small hill. The next day, she gave me a goat, saying, “She will save you from death one day. Do not let her go.”
Sometimes in the morning, I go out with the goat for a walk before the day gets too hot. The goat likes the dry bushes slightly behind the market, in an open field that sits between the school to the left and the main road to the right. There are plenty of rocks that I can sit on to watch the goat play, or to simply stare into the sky before I head back home to prepare for school.
One morning it rained. I was just approaching the market when the rumble of thunder sounded, and a gathering of clouds materialized in the sky. The people walking by looked upward, puzzled and scared.
I remembered the things my mother would say to me, cryptic things about how she was being followed. “Other mothers are taking care of their children. But you are taking care of me, and you will take care of many others when the ones following me finally come and go with me.” She would say this as she looked at me, as the mystery of her words that I was too young to comprehend hung in the air.
“Who’s coming to take you?” I would ask, playing with her curly hair.
“The ones from a distant place who travel with the rain,” she used to respond, and that would be that. We would then go to my grandmother’s house. I loved to see my grandmother . I loved to see my grandmother sitting quietly outside her house, with with her favourite purple scarf wrapped tightly around her head.
These memories came back to me as the first, fat drops began to fall. I turned around and started walking in the opposite direction, hoping to get back home before the rain could catch up with me. What if I got taken away like my mother? There was something about how she said those things that made me feel as if I was involved in what happens when it rains.
I turned around to see if the goat was trailing behind me, but she was not there. I swung around in panicked circles, hoping to see where the goat had gone, but it was as if the panic that I felt had substantiated around me in the form of women screaming, running from one side of the pathway to the other, trying to prevent the rain from destroying the goods they had just begun to set out. Motorcycles zoomed up and down the path in no particular fashion, and the small buses that transported people to the city had begun to drive towards the main road, causing a knot of traffic in the middle of the path. I scanned the chaos for the goat, but I couldn’t find her.
The rain was coming down heavier now, and it became harder and harder for me to see clearly. I thought I saw the flash of the goat’s short, white tail going inside a shed haphazardly put together with corrugated iron sheeting that was rusted in several places. I rushed into the shed and stood just inside the doorway looking around. The wind was blowing wildly outside, and this I followed the goat and stood just inside the door. The wind blew furiously outside, and tmade some of the water spray onto my legs. I moved deeper into the dark shed to avoid getting wet, and my leg hit against a low, hard surface. A bench. I sat down on it, and as the weak, grey light came in through gaps in the iron sheets, I realized that there was a table by the bench. And across from me, on the other side of the table, there was a woman sitting on another bench, with a giant cup of steaming tea sitting in front of her. She smiled at me.
Seemingly materializing from the air to my right, there was also another table. Instead of benches, it had four chairs around it. At the center of the table was a bowl of sugar and a jug of water. There was a slender old man sitting on one of the chairs, noisily sipping on a cup of tea then biting into a thick slab of bread. He had on an old, oversized, brown jacket, which he had worn over a faded red shirt that was buttoned all the way to the top. On top of his head sat a bulky-looking hat. Behind us there were two more tables with two other men sitting at them, drinking tea. There was a counter in front of me, behind which stood a giant pile of loaves of bread and fried yams. And sitting down there, at the corner where the counter joined the wall, was my goat.
“You look cold,” the woman in front of me said.
“I’m looking for my goat. And I can see her behind you.”
“I know. She was scared of the rain.”
“I should take her and go home,” I said. “I need to go back and prepare for school.”
“It’s raining. Nobody is going to leave their house today. You must have been very young the last time it rained. We have to wait for everything to pass.”
The rain howled on outside, increasing. The iron structure looked like it was buckling inwards, and the sickening thought that we would be crushed inside it came to me. I wanted to leave the shed. Even more frightening was the calm manner in which the people inside it behaved. They continued to sip their tea and chew on their bread in an almost meditative silence, seemingly unaware of the rain and what it meant.
“Let me buy you some tea,” the woman offered. “The rain won’t be stopping anytime soon.”
“If you tell me the stories of what happened the last time it rained.”
She agreed. “Okay,” she said, and turned around to face the counter. She tapped on it with her long fingers, their nails painted a deep indigo blue. A tall woman with wide hips appeared from behind the counter.
“One tea,” the woman ordered. The tea was poured into a big cup and put before me. It was very hot and the steam burnt my eyes. I tried to sip it and my tongue got burnt too. I looked at the goat on the ground. She was hungry, I could tell. She was staring absent-mindedly at lizards that slithered into various cracks and holes in the earthen floor of the shed.
“Can we buy a honey yam for the goat?” I asked the woman. “She’s hungry.”
The woman turned around and shouted, “One honey yam!” to the woman behind the counter. “Two! No – three.”
“One for you and one for me,” she said, turning to me and smiling. “We might be here a while.”
I didn’t like the way she said that last sentence. When the yams came, I called the goat to my side. She sniffed at the yam I placed in front of her nose, and began to nibble at it. I bit into mine. It was cold and grainy, but it was sweet and I liked that.
“So what happened that last time?” I asked around the yam in my mouth. The goat sat by my side and let out a happy little bleat of satisfaction from having eaten the tasty yam. I patted her neck, and she went back to staring at the lizards scurrying across the floor.
“First, you need to understand something,” she said. Her long, beautiful fingers were wrapped around her cup. Her indigo nails glistened despite the darkness, matching the purple scarf wrapped loosely around her head.
I began to think of my grandmother. I wondered where she was. Even on ordinary days, I barely got to see her. Ever since my mother died, I had been living with her, but once I was old enough to cook and clean for myself, I would hardly see my grandmother in the house, or anywhere around. I learnt how to hunt rabbits, and how to pick leaves from the forest to cook.
The rain continued to fall outside. The shed shook and rattled and twisted in the wind. The goat started to bleat, but I patted her neck again and she calmed down a little. She stood up and started prancing around the shed. The other people in there glanced suspiciously at her for a few seconds, but went back to nonchalantly drinking their tea. I noticed that she was trying really hard to walk around the lizards that appeared to be increasing, coming out of nowhere, coming out of the ground, coming out of the air. She moved into a dark corner and settled down there.
“What do I need to understand?” I asked. I finished my yam. I looked into the woman’s face, and in a sudden terrifying moment, it was like looking at my own. Everything in the dark shed took on a sickening, unreal shade. I tried to move my legs, but I found that I could not. There was a sound coming from the top of my head, that rattled my brain around. I looked at the woman, the familiar curly hair from my childhood and the purple scarf that covered it uncomfortably recognizable. My mother was sitting across from me, on the other side of the film of many bright colors over my eyes. I shut them, but I could still see everything as clearly as if it were happening inside my head, blending with the persistent, drilling noise that bounced the images of my mother from my childhood and the present moment all around, such that I could not differentiate between the memories I had and what was happening in front of me.
My mother was still sitting in front of me, looking at my face. The other people in the shed had also joined her and were looking at me. The woman behind the counter grew taller and thinner, and her skin turned dark, darker than the night sky when there is no moon. She had on a dress so black it appeared there was nothing on her. The same thing happened to the men who were sitting on the tables behind us, who now stood in front of me. They grew taller, darker and thinner, and wore clothes that were so dark that they appeared to be non-existent. I opened my eyes, and the colours in the air began to glitter madly. Then, the old man’s bulky hat fell off to reveal long, white hair. Underneath his oversized clothes was a long, purple dress, and inside it was not the old man any longer, but my grandmother. She was looking at me with a blank look on her face. I wanted to ask her for help, but I could not open my mouth. I was incapable of making any movement.
The rain still pounded outside, but it sounded as though it were coming from very far away.
“That the rain today is for you,” my mother whispered.
The number of lizards skittering all over the ground steadily increased. I felt as though the shed would collapse from the intensity of their running movements and the rain outside. They ran in all directions, over each other, up the tables, down the tables, all over the benches. They did not climb over any of us, perfectly avoiding the outlines of our feet on the ground. They had eyes of red, yellow, blue and green that shone like jewels.
I could taste smoke in my mouth. The ground was heating up. I heard my goat bleating from her corner, but I could not turn around and see if she was okay.
“You are not like any other child,” my mother said. “You are my child. And that means you are not fully of this world.”
The sound of the rain falling sounded more and more distant, and the noise in my head subsided. I moved further into myself, back to my childhood where I could hear my mother’s voice. It was as if I had been reborn, being cradled in her arms again. Her voice came from somewhere above me, soothing and calm. She was speaking to me from the past, as she was at present. I heard her as she spoke to me, her newborn child, telling me who I was, who we were.
“There are two worlds; this one, and that of the elementals. You are born of both. I am born of both. We cannot live as those fully of one or the other do. We also have a responsibility to ensure the connection between the two is not lost.”
The elementals were there in the room, taking on the tall, dark form I saw. They hovered around me, as they stood with their feet still on the ground. I was back to the day I had been born, with the same faces looking over me, welcoming me to the liminal space I occupied.
“When I died, what happened was that the spirits took me. The malevolent elementals wanted to end the connection between the two worlds to do as they pleased upon the physical world, without having to battle any one of us. To have you left here meant that they could be defeated. Your grandmother took you away into hiding. But you are here. And it is now upon you to stay as the bond. There could be others. But as far as we know, it is you and you alone since the last time it rained.”
I was growing up now. There was a pause in my mother’s speech as I saw the dark elementals playing with me as a child, a vague memory I had forgotten. The dark and friendly shadows that seemed to follow me around suddenly came into form as beings from another world that I now knew to be the elementals. They directed me into the forest and showed me what I could collect and take home to eat; they led me into clearings there where I saw the most magnificent antelopes and birds.
My mother would join us sometimes, and we would go into the clearings together. I watched her as she sat down on the grass, and performed rituals with the elementals. Colours would swirl in the air, and sometimes deep shadows would be conjured up that would disappear. Then we would leave, and walk into the village with the elementals trailing behind us. The people of the village were happy, and there was no darkness. I became aware of the balance that existed, that people knew that all was right with the spirit world, that all was right with them on earth. They greeted my mother, and she would stop and talk to them. She was granted a certain reverence that I was not aware of as a child. She was important to the village, and the people knew what she did for them.
“I won’t be here for long. They took me – I am wholly spirit now. I cannot stay out in the rain for a long time. It dissolves us spirit people. Takes us back to the spirit world. So many of us who existed when you were a child were taken away the day I died. Our spirit-halves went to the elemental world leaving our bodies behind, dead. That would have been you today, dissolved in the rain. The evil elementals on the other side heard that you were still here, still alive. They brought the rain. They always bring the rain. I couldn’t let you die, so I found my way here.”
My grandmother was carrying me out of the house on the day my mother died. The rain all around us was glittering in all the colours I knew – reds, yellows, and blues. The people of the village stood under the roof of the house shivering, looking terrified. Some of the men and women were sobbing loudly. An old man sat by himself in the corner looking unbearably sad. His face almost folded into itself with grief. I saw myself in my grandmother’s house a while after my mother’s death. The elementals around me were now dull and lifeless. I saw them now, when I could not see them then. Trips into the forest lost their excitement; the animals became hard to find. The elementals stayed up in the trees, watching me. They could not play with me any longer because they had to protect me. We stopped going for walks in the village. I noticed a certain darkness permeate the village. There were malevolent forces at work, and I had a sense of that.
“But now that you are alive here, it’s not going to be easy for you. We have to protect you from the bad spirits. We have to keep you grounded here on earth. And we have to do this while it is still raining.”
Now I returned to the shed. I was fully back to the present. I stared at my mother for for a while, as I felt my strange paralysis melt away. I wriggled my hands and feet, and turned around to see where the goat was. She was still in her corner, sitting there, looking very stiff. The scary lizards crawled all over her wooden body.
“Stay with me,” I told my mother. “Wait for the rain to stop, and then stay with me.”
“I can’t do that. If I wait for the rain to stop, I won’t be able stay on earth. Instead, I will linger between the two worlds in a world that does not exist. I will be nothing for eternity.”
“What does –” I started to ask, but my grandmother grabbed my arm.
“We have no time,” she said in a low, urgent tone.
“Are you a spirit person?” I asked her.
“No. I married a full earth man after your mother was born. I became of the earth. I was tired of the spirits and the elemental world. If you decide, one day you can too. But to see in both worlds has its benefits.”
“Where’s my father?”
“You don’t have a father. Spirit people are decided upon from where we cannot see.”
I had always thought he had died.
The two tall, dark elementals walked over to my petrified goat. She was still in her corner. I was scared. I saw one of them take out a knife from his dark garments. Before I was aware of what was going on, I heard a slashing noise and a loud bleat from the goat. Then there was blood all over the floor. My goat’s lifeless head hung to the side. I gasped out loud and covered my face with my hands. I tried to stand up to leave, to run away into the rain and dissolve, or go home, or escape to another place, anything to leave behind what was happening. But my grandmother’s grip on my wrist was strong and I could not twist myself free.
The elemental woman from behind the counter went over to the dead goat and dipped a white cloth in the blood till it was all red. The men came over and took over from my grandmother, lifting me up and pinning me to the ground. I struggled to set myself free, but they were strong. The woman came over to me and took off my clothes. At this point, I realized there was nothing I could do to prevent what was happening to me. I cried silently, my tears flowing into the ground. The woman started to to paint strange symbols on me with the goat’s blood, symbols I had never seen anywhere before. I heard my mother’s voice come from somewhere above my head.
“This is part of the grounding ritual. The blood of a companion to keep you on earth.”
This is what my grandmother meant when she said the goat would one day save my life.
The woman painted all over my chest, my thighs, and my upper arms. My body was turned over and more symbols were painted on my back and neck. When she was done, she gave a slight nod to my mother. My mother let out a short sigh. I noticed that the lizards I had forgotten about had begun to slither over my body. I started wriggling again, but the men held me down firmly. I began to scream. The lizards then lay still on my body over the patterns of the symbols. Just as soon as I felt them settle, they all simultaneously began to bite into my skin with their small sharp teeth. I screamed so loudly I thought my head would explode. They bit and bit into the blood symbols, leaving shimmering granules of grit the color of their eyes in the patterns. I screamed and screamed as they bit, going round in endless lines, and circles, and spirals, making the world above and beneath me spin.
Then, as soon as it started, it was over. The lizards skittered off me and into the cracks in the ground. A deathly silence settled in the shed; under our skin. Save for the sound of the rain and our heavy breathing, nothing else moved. Everything was still.
My grandmother lifted me up from the ground. Surprisingly, even after what had happened, I could stand up on my own. My skin tingled where the lizards had bitten me. It was not painful. It felt cool and colorful. Still naked, we followed my mother out of the shed. The two men followed me, and the elemental woman who painted me was at the end of our little procession. We left the dead body of my goat in the corner of the shed. I wanted to go back and get her, but my grandmother insisted that we had no time. My mother and her spirit friends had to return to the spirit world. I ran back into the shed for a moment, covered her with the clothes I had worn that morning and kissed her ears. Then I went back to where my grandmother stood outside in the rain and held her hand.
“When you walk through the rain and wash the blood off, everything will be complete,” my mother informed me. “Your spirit blood will mix with the pure earth blood of the goat and you will be grounded. The lizards are spirit servants whose mouths bonded you to the other side too,” she continued.
We walked in the rain towards the field. I wondered when my mother and the spirits she came with would disappear. Everything seemed to be happening very, very slowly. An angry spear of lightning split the sky in half, followed by a deafening clap of thunder that echoed around in my chest for a long while afterward. The rain poured and poured, and steamed through the sky. I could see the many reds, yellows and blues of the lizards’ eyes in the raindrops, glittering and twisting and turning violently, blinding me for brief flashes of time. Those must have been the spirits. Each colored raindrop falling on my skin where I had been tattooed by the lizards stung deeply and released a smell not unlike the night flowers of the forest trees. I began to steam as well. The goat’s blood ran down my skin, briefly forming minute puddles between my toes before trickling into the ground. I began to feel the heat again, this time coming from the ground that we walked upon.
It was deserted as we left, but I saw an old man just as we were leaving the market. He was sitting solemn and half-blind under the eaves of an earthen building. He also saw us. Instead of appearing scared or confused, his face was disrupted by a giant smile that made his eyes disappear into his head. His face was so wrinkled, I thought there could have been ancient secrets hiding in the folds of skin. I recognized him as the man outside my mother’s house from the visions I had just seen.
“We have been saved!” he shouted. A few curious people in the market poked their heads out of structures and sheds and buildings, wondering what was going on.
The sky was changing color. There were a million different colors a minute. The rain continued to fall and steam at the same time. I saw the lizards all over the ground, running in the same direction as we walked in. Their feet made a whispering sound as they scurried over the rocks and wet grass.
The old man ran after us, stumbling over the slippery mud. Some people had started running after him. One woman held the old man’s elbow and helped him run. Soon, there was a crowd of people behind us.
“What have we saved them from?” I asked, looking back at the old man.
“We’ve broken the curse of the rain,” my mother explained. “It won’t rain again for as long as you are alive. There will be no reason to because you’ve been grounded and cannot be dissolved into the spirit world. That man can see the symbols on your body. He knows what they mean.”
“Why weren’t you grounded?”
“I thought I was safe. I thought the spirits were all fair. It turns out that on both sides of our existence, good and bad exist in equal measure. I was lucky enough to be able to spend equal amounts of my times in both places. You will live out your days on earth. And your interactions with the spirit world will be few, and sometimes tormenting, especially knowing that not everyone there wanted this. But the bond between the two worlds remains because of you. And now that it won’t rain again until you die, this means that more spirit children can be born in the meantime, each one strengthening the bond, each one living out their full potential without fear. You will have to learn how to stay safe. For you and the new children. I suggest you speak to that old man after the rain stops.”
I was right about the ancient secrets.
We reached the center of the field. The crowd of people formed a half-circle around us warily keeping their distance. The air was crackling, as if each individual raindrop possessed its own share of lightning. An odd humming noise, whose origin I could not determine, was ringing in my ears. My mother, the two male and the female elementals had begun to violently scratch their skin. Giant flakes of dry, burnt skin fell onto the ground and vanished in a hiss of mist as soon as they touched the ground. Their bodies began to mist and hiss as well. And then they were gone, in a flash of color and black light. I remained standing with my grandmother in the middle of the field.
The crowd of people that followed us out to the field looked on in silence. The rain lessened and so did the lizards. In a few moments, the sky had returned to its usual bright blue; it had stopped raining and the lizards had all disappeared. The crowd chattered excitedly as they ran back to the village, most definitely going back to spread the news about what they had just seen. Soon, it was just my grandmother, the old, half-blind man and me left standing in the field. The old man walked towards us.
“I will see you when you get back to the village,” my grandmother told me as she left us.
The old man ran his withered hands over by back, over my hands, over my chest. He was smiling madly as he did so. I trembled just as madly. He produced an enormous coat made from the hide of a goat and covered me with it.
We walked back to the village.
Michelle Angwenyi is a Kenyan writer. She blogs at notjustwiththelions.com.