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I squint up into the sky, shielding my eyes with my hand. There isn’t a cloud to be seen, just acres of cornflower blue stretching in all directions. It’s mid-afternoon, when the sun is at its most furious, so I slip quickly into the shade of the barn to try and escape. It takes a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the darkness and I stand just inside, breathing the stale, dusty air. When I can see, I take the piece of chalk that is hanging on a string just inside the door and make another mark on the wall. I count them: forty four. Forty four days of endless, searing, mid-western sun. Forty four days without rain.
[private]A noise in the hayloft makes me turn and I see my younger brother, Jon, sitting with his legs dangling over the edge. He’s filthy. His sun-bleached denim trousers are ripped crudely off just above his skinny knees and he is covered in dust and flakes of scabby dry earth where he has been kicking at the piles of debris left by last night’s dust storm. These ‘black rollers’ are becoming more frequent now. Jon is swinging his legs back and forth and I move closer, trying to catch even a hint of the breeze he’s making.
“They found another dead cow this morning,” he says, his voice flat and whiney.
The drought is killing our animals like it is killing us. Before the last, brief rainfall we had gone three weeks without. Nothing grows in scorched earth so the cows have no grass left to feed on and haven’t produced any milk in weeks. Our tired, skeletal dogs slope around the yard and slump in whatever shade they can find, their mouths lolling open as they pant heavily. During the long nights, when it’s too stifling to sleep and I lie awake for hours on end, I sometimes wonder how long it will be before it claims one of us too. Many of our neighbours have already packed up and moved out, heading west, but my parents are resolved to stay in Oklahoma and wait it out.
I hear my mother calling me from the porch and reach up, gently touching my brother’s calf.
“It’ll be okay,” I say. “It’ll rain soon. You’ll see”
He calls after me as I leave. “But when, Lena? When?”
Five days later, Crowley’s Travelling Carnival arrives in our town. Excitement is high and a buzzing crowd swarms through the gates as soon as they open. As we enter, our parents warn us to guard our money and tell Frank, our older brother, to keep us away from the roustabouts. Then we plunge into a whirl of colourful lights and a blur of noise. Jon has been chattering about candyfloss all day so we head straight for the Sugar Shack. He lets us pull bits off the sticky pink cloud as we walk around and we laugh as we stuff the cotton candy into our mouths, letting it melt on our tongues. The carnival is intoxicating. Even though it is still so hot and everyone was miserable on the other side of the gates we are all full of smiles now, the cracked earth and frayed tempers temporarily forgotten.
We wander around for a while, slightly overwhelmed by the bustle. We stand and watch the chair-o-planes, listening to the squeals of delight as people swing high above our heads. Outside the House of Mirrors, a grotesquely fat man wearing a billowing green silk tunic and ochre slippers beckons us in. We shake our heads and he shrugs and turns away from us, already enticing someone else. We see the sword swallower and fire eaters and meander past the tent where the first burlesque show of the evening will soon start. One of the girls blows Frank a kiss and calls him ‘cutie’, and he grins bashfully as we walk away. Encouraged by this he makes the bell ring at the strongman game, smugly collecting his prize. We stop and watch the knife throwing act for a while, overhearing a conversation about a man who can drive nails through his hands but doesn’t shed even a drop of blood, then we get in the line for the Ferris wheel and spend the next quarter of an hour inching slowly around the ride as we sit in the gondola and watch the world ebb away. From the top of the wheel everything looks tiny and bright, and we can hear faint strains of music from below. The daylight is finally fading and I look out across the flatlands. There still isn’t a cloud in sight.
Back on the ground we notice that a crowd that has gathered outside a small rainbow-striped tent. We sneak our way to the front and see a black wooden board propped up by the entrance, with the words ‘Der Erstaunliche Regen’ written across it in silver scroll, surrounded by silver painted stars. Underneath, in the same flowery hand, it says ‘The Amazing Regen’. I remember the scraps of German that our grandparents taught us.
“The Amazing Rain,” I say. “Shall we go in? Amazing or not, it might be the only rain we see for a while.”
Frank nods in agreement and we join the queue of people shuffling expectantly into the tent. We find ourselves a place on one of the benches and sit down. The tent is soon crammed full, with latecomers standing around the edges and squatting in the aisle. It’s stifling inside; people are fanning themselves and I wrinkle my nose at the smell of stale sweat. Lit only by a few pale lamps, shadows leap and dance around the walls; it feels dreamlike. I scan the crowd and see our parents sitting a few rows back. There is an excited babble and no-one but us seems to notice the man who walks out from the back of the tent and takes his place on the crudely constructed stage. I study him as he stands watching, waiting patiently for the chatter to die down. He is dressed in a tattered black suit with patched elbows and fraying cuffs, and a pair of scuffed boots. A crooked top hat sits at a slight angle on top of neck-length, ragged mousy hair. But over all of his drabness he wears the most spectacular cape I’ve ever seen. Dazzling aquamarine blue, it drips from his shoulders and flows down his back like a waterfall. It’s the colour I imagine the sea to be, although I have never seen the sea. I have never left the plains. After a few moments, the crowd quietens.
“My name is Regen,” he says, in a voice tinged with the same heavy accent of my grandparents, “and I can make it rain.”
The crowd starts muttering again. Regen stands looking at us all impassively. As I watch him, I realise that he seems almost ageless. He is neither old nor young and his skin is smooth but there is age in his face, in his expression. And his eyes… even from here I can see the stark blue of his eyes, the same aquamarine as his cape.
He continues, speaking over the crowd. “I can control water and make it bend to my will.”
As the audience continues to debate, Regen holds his arms out in front of him and cups his hands one over the other, the fingertips almost touching. He starts murmuring quietly to himself; his lips are moving but we can’t hear what he says and his attention is now focussed entirely on his hands. As he speaks, a soft blue glow starts to emanate from between his fingers, slowly getting brighter as he continues to whisper his mantra. Jon slips his hand into mine and clutches my fingers tightly as Regen carefully opens his palms and we see a bright silvery ball of what looks like water spinning quickly between them. The crowd gasps and as they do so, Regen snaps his hands apart and the translucent orb shatters into a million tiny droplets, soaking the front few rows of the audience. Some of the women shriek as the drops hit them and someone shouts “It’s water, it’s water!” Excited jabbering fills the tent and suddenly everyone is talking loudly while the people at the front shake the water from their hair. I have no idea what has just happened and sit open-mouthed, staring at the man on stage.
“More!” someone shouts. “We’re dying here, give us more.”
“Save us…” someone else pleads.
“It’s a trick,” a male voice bellows.
I twist round in my seat to try and see who doesn’t believe what has just happened but Frank nudges me in the ribs and whispers, “it is a trick Lena, it has to be. He must have had something up his sleeve.”
Regen holds up his empty, wet palms to the audience, appealing for quiet. “Would you like to see another demonstration?” he asks.
The crowd bays in unison.
“I need absolute quiet,” he says, “and I need you to concentrate. You must imagine the rain. You must want the rain.”
Hush falls over the audience once more as Regen takes his position at the front of the stage. Standing with his feet slightly apart and his head tipped back, he raises his arms and starts chanting again, slightly louder this time. I can’t make out what he is saying, although I am certain that he is speaking neither English nor German. For a while nothing happens. Regen keeps reciting his words over and over; it’s almost hypnotic. Suddenly he claps his hands together and a shower of water falls from the ceiling of the tent. People open their mouths to try and catch some, and rub the cool droplets into their heat-fatigued skin. I look back at the stage. Regen is standing quietly, watching.
“It’s still a trick.” Frank’s voice breaks my reverie and I turn to him. His brown eyes are shining in the lamplight. “There’ll be some pipes or something up in the shadows.”
I look up. “I don’t know Frank, I can’t see any pipes and I can see the material of the roof. Look.”
But Frank is disbelieving and simply shrugs as he says, “it’s a trick Lena, mark my words. Magic doesn’t exist, you know that.”
Once again the cry of “more, more!” is taken up and this time the whole crowd seems to be shouting.
“Make it rain properly!” someone shouts.
“Can you make it rain outside?”
Regen cocks his head to one side, an enigmatic smile playing across his lips.
“I can do that,” he says. “But it may come at a cost as I can’t control-”
The crowd cuts him off.
“Do it, we need rain.”
“Prove it. Make it rain.”
“He can’t do it! He’s a fraud.”
Appealing for quiet again, Regen simply says “as you wish” and leaves the stage, his cape rippling behind him. People scramble out of their seats to follow him, grabbing the lamps from the walls of the tent as they go. Clutching both Frank and Jon’s hands so that we don’t get separated in the crush, we go too.
Regen’s tent is tucked away on the edge of the carnival site and he leads us a short distance out into the pitch darkness of the plain. I look up; the sky is still completely clear, a dazzling pinprick-pattern of stars shining brightly. I can’t see how Regen can possibly do this and nerves start to rise in my chest. We stand in a large circle and those carrying lamps set them down on the ground. Regen stands in the middle of the ring of pale light. I am still holding both of my brothers’ hands and I can see our parents on the other side of the circle, their fingers also entwined. The circle is bubbling with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation.
Regen starts whispering a new incantation. As before, nothing happens immediately but after a few moments I feel a soft breeze brush across my legs, fluttering the hem of my skirt, and I realise that goosebumps are beginning to prickle my skin.
“Look,” someone hisses in a loud whisper, “look at his feet.”
The dust on the ground at Regen’s feet is swirling around his boots. As he continues to chant, the black blizzard starts to spin a little higher, then higher still, travelling up his legs, past his knees, embracing his thighs. The crowd is watching him intently, transfixed by the mini-tornado crawling slowly up his body and enveloping him in a swelling mixture of dust and dirt. He holds his arms aloft like a preacher, imploring the skies to open and rain down on us, to save us. As the funnel climbs it engulfs him completely and we can no longer see him. Obscured by the spinning mass, the only sign that he is still there are the fleeting glimpses of glittering blue as his cape flaps in the roiling cloud. The blizzard keeps growing taller until the bottom of it suddenly breaks anchor with the ground and it darts up and away into the sky, melting into the heavens. Regen drops to his knees, breathing heavily and blinking the dust out of his eyes. We all stand still, staring up at the stars, waiting. Time passes but nothing happens and the crowd becomes impatient.
“You’re a fraud,” someone shouts angrily.
“Come on, let’s go. I knew he couldn’t do it.”
The crowd starts to disperse. We linger behind, still staring up in hope. Jon looks forlorn, a little boy whose faith has suddenly been dashed. Back on his feet Regen is brushing the dirt from his clothes. Frank was right after all but I still try to force a smile at the tattered man; it was a good show while it lasted and for a moment… As we turn to leave, Regen clutches my arm. I gasp slightly as I realise that his eyes are no longer the aquamarine of earlier but are now midnight blue, the same as the night sky.
“Don’t stop believing,” he whispers. “You will see, in time. Now go home.” He lets go of my arm and disappears into the darkness.
That night it rains harder than it ever has before. Or harder than I can remember, at least. I’m still awake when the first drops of rain patter against the window and rivulets of water are soon snaking down the glass. I go to the window and trace the path of the raindrops with my fingertip. I hear shouting coming from the yard so, wrapping my dressing gown around me, I run downstairs. Frank and my father are outside, standing in the driving rain with their arms aloft, while the dogs caper around them, barking and rolling in the quickly-forming muddy puddles. My mother is in the kitchen doorway, watching them. I touch her elbow as I stand beside her and when she turns to me, I see tears in her eyes.
“It’s happened, Lena, it’s finally happened.”
Footsteps race down the stairs and Jon pushes out past us, squealing with joy, his bare fleet sliding across the already slick earth.
“He did it, Ma,” I whisper to her. “The Amazing Regen really did it.”
It rains all of the following day; and the next. What we expected to be a cloudburst turns into a monsoon. Drains overflow and the main street of the town has a river rushing down its centre. Our yard and paddocks are underwater by the third day as the scorched earth simply can’t cope with the deluge. The carnival stays open for five days and it rains the entire time. We visit the fairground every night and see the same people; shoulders hunched against the onslaught, hats pulled low over their faces, mud-splattered up to the knees and slipping around in the sticky mud. We look for Regen every night, everyone who was in the circle looks for him, but we don’t see him again and we can’t find his tent. By the fifth night everyone is as miserable and exhausted as they were when the drought was on, only now the talk is of wishing “this damn rain” away. On its final day, as the carnival is packing up and preparing to jump, we join a small crowd huddled at the edge of the site, a crowd that is browbeaten and trying to find shelter in itself. We are there one last time to catch a glimpse of Regen, to implore him to make the rain stop. If pleading doesn’t work, some of us may try force. But he is still nowhere to be found.
When the carnival has been dismantled and the convoy formed up ready to leave, a man we take to be Crowley comes over to the crowd.
“We want to see Regen,” someone shouts. “We need him to make this rain stop.”
Crowley looks confused. “Regen… ?” he says. “Who’s Regen?”
The crowd starts clamouring as one.
“The man who did this, the man who made it rain.”
“We watched his show here on Monday night.”
“An old man-”
No, a young man!”
“A blue, glittering cloak.”
“He was pitched at the edge of the carnival, near the Ferris wheel.”
“He’s trying to drown us!”
The driver of the lead truck bips its horn and leans out of the window, signalling that they need to leave. Crowley shakes his head slowly.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t know who you’re talking about. We have no-one like that here. I’m sure it’ll stop raining soon though. You’ve been in drought for weeks, yes? You should be pleased by this.”
He turns and walks back to the truck. All we can do is watch as the carnival drives slowly away. Watch and pray for it not to rain.[/private]