Calling Down the Rains
by Renee Carter Hall
Even in the parched heat, Saubhari's bones ached as he forced himself up from his cot. The tiger's body wanted nothing more than to stay in bed and listen as the night-sounds of the jungle gave way to the calls and chirrups of the daytime--but this was the day, and he knew his task.
He dressed slowly, wrapping and tying the scarlet cloth twice before he was satisfied with how it draped. Halfway through he had to stop and sit back down on the edge of the cot, dragging each breath through the tightness of his chest, but at last the ache eased, and he reached for the walking-stick that was propped carefully against the rough wall of the cave.
Back when he hadn't needed the staff for support, he had spent long summer nights carving its twining vines and flowers, even adding a line of ants spiraling up the base. He could no longer see well enough to do such fine work, but his finger-pads brushed over the delicate forms, and he smiled at the memory.
The tiger flinched a bit at the sound. In his younger days, he would have heard his friend approaching from far enough away to have tea ready by the time Halim reached his doorstep. Now that his hearing had dulled, he found that the jackal could finally take him by surprise.
Halim frowned at him over the covered basket he carried. "What are you doing up?"
"Something I must do." Saubhari leaned on the staff and made his way to the mouth of the cave. He could smell warm bread in the basket--just baked, no doubt, by Halim's wife. His stomach growled, and he cursed himself for finally regaining an appetite on the very day he could take neither food nor drink.
"You're not well," Halim said gently. "Come, have something to eat, and then whatever you need to do, I'll help you."
Saubhari shook his head. "I have to go alone. I always have."
He stood looking out at the jungle, the tangled landscape brown and gold in the morning light. Villagers would be starting their day soon, walking miles to haul water from the few shrinking pools that remained. He wondered, as he always did, if any of them knew what had to be done. They were like children, all of them, enjoying all that their parents provided with no thought of the toil that bought it.
Halim set the basket down and came to stand beside him. "You haven't the strength to make that climb, my friend. And I won't let you spend your last breaths trying."
A faint smile lifted the tiger's whiskers. "Then I will spend my last breaths fighting you, and will you like that any better?"
He rested a heavy hand on Halim's arm. "I must go; you know that. And if you are my friend, as you have been these many years, you will let me."
"Stubborn old fool," the jackal said, but his voice was soft. "Go on, then."
Saubhari nodded. "Tell Nidra the bread was delicious."
"You'd have me lie to my own wife?"
"She should be used to it by now," Saubhari replied, and though it was an old joke, the sound of the jackal's familiar laughter followed him out of the cave.
* * *
The path up the mountain was steep and winding, but he knew each turn as intimately as the complaints of his body. His muscles knew this path as much as his mind did.
When he paused to rest, leaning on the staff, he would have chuckled if he'd had the breath to spare. He remembered how difficult the climb had been the very first time he'd made it, when he was a clumsy cub new to the jungle's mysteries, stumbling along after his father. How determined he'd been to keep up, no matter what! In later years, he'd made this trek so effortlessly that he'd had to force himself sometimes to slow down and feel the earth beneath him. And now, full circle--the journey was a challenge again.
For the first time, Saubhari admitted to himself that this would be the last year, and he accepted this thought with a calmness that surprised him. He had thought he would cling to life, claws dug in, desperate for each moment until the end. But as much as he loved all of it, he found himself ready, even strangely expectant.
His breaths came more easily now, and he continued, thinking again of all the times he'd been here, and of all the moods and memories that colored each visit. The year he'd come after meeting Rashida, when every rock and leaf and cloud had seemed more beautiful, more perfect, because of their love. The year Halim had married Nidra. The year Jalan had been born. The year Rashida fell ill... Every year, he had walked this path, and both he and it had changed. He almost expected to see his other selves walking here with him, some ahead, some behind, all of time blurred into a single act.
And then a rustling came from behind him, and as he turned, he thought for an instant that this was one of his younger selves, seeing his own features mirrored back to him, returned to the strength and pride of youth.
The younger tiger reached him and sighed. "Father, you know you shouldn't be up here."
Saubhari longed to gather his son to him, but even as a cub Jalan had stood apart from everyone, especially his parents. Rashida had been puzzled and sometimes hurt by this, but Saubhari saw a fierce independence--and not a little of his own stubbornness--in his son and prized it.
He realized the thought of Rashida no longer hurt him, and he rejoiced in that. The holy men of the village could say what they liked. He knew she was waiting.
He glanced back at Jalan. "It's good to see you." He did not say one last time, but the meaning hung between them like mist. A moment passed, and then Saubhari turned, leaned his weight against the staff, and continued up the path.
Jalan followed. "Father, please go back home."
"You know I can't." He picked his way carefully through the brittle vines. "How did you know I was here?"
"Halim sent me."
Saubhari shook his head and kept climbing. "You both know better. Halim is a good man, and I can forgive him for having a soft heart, but you--" He turned a piercing gaze on his only child. "You, of all in this land, should know better. You walked this path once before." He shook his head again and went forward. "But I wonder if you even remember."
"I do remember," Jalan said, and though Saubhari wasn't facing him, he could feel his son's muscles tensing, could feel the change between them. Then Jalan's voice softened. "I do remember," he repeated, "but you know I don't believe."
"May as well not believe in your own blood or your own breath," Saubhari replied, and he heard the bitterness in his own voice and hated himself for it. There was no time for this, no time to do anything but shake the old dry arguments into dust and let the winds carry them away.
Saubhari stopped, clutching the staff so tightly that his claws pricked the smooth surface of the wood. "It is enough," he said at last, "that you remember."
He turned slowly and reached out, laying a hand on his son's cheek. Jalan tensed but didn't protest.
"It is enough that you remember," Saubhari said again. "Look after Halim; he has no children of his own. Goodbye, my son."
As he took his hand away, something flared in Jalan's eyes, and Saubhari saw again the cub who might yowl and lash out when the way was rough but who always found his own path through.
"You won't go back home," Jalan said.
Saubhari smiled. "No."
Jalan cast his gaze farther up, where the trail disappeared into rock and loose earth. He nodded. "Then take my arm. I'm going with you."
* * *
Jalan wanted to lead, but though his stubbornness was clearly forged of the same fire as his father's, he had to be content with staying at Saubhari's side and guiding him carefully where the trail turned steep. The ground slid and crumbled beneath their feet, and twice Jalan kept them both from falling.
"You really believe this, don't you?" Jalan said, panting, when they were halfway up. At times he had spoken those words with anger or contempt, but now Saubhari heard a hint of wonder in Jalan's voice.
"Yes, I do."
Jalan looked away for a moment, as if deciding whether to speak. "Father, the rains will come with or without you. They always have."
Saubhari regarded him mildly. "Perhaps."
"Those words you say--all of that--you can't prove it does anything. It doesn't make any difference."
At any other time, Saubhari knew he would have bristled at his son's words. He would have matched them with his own, each argument honed to a knife's point. Now, as he pulled in another slow breath, he felt himself loosening, felt the tight grip opening. He knew what Jalan expected him to say, but he could no longer say it, and he was glad.
"You are... as you are," he managed. "As am I."
Jalan looked suspicious for a moment. "I'm not coming with you because I believe in any of this."
Saubhari almost smiled. Jalan was all salt and fire, but there was no deceit in him. "I know."
"It's only that--you believe it, and--it's important to you, and I..."
For a moment, there was nothing but the hot wind rattling the jungle below them.
"So... That's why I'm here," Jalan finished.
Saubhari nodded. "I'm glad... you're here."
Jalan licked his lips and glanced up the trail, and they went forward.
There was no true path now, only memory. The air thinned, and Saubhari dimly heard the blood rushing in his ears. The ground seemed to shift beneath him with each step, but he could no longer tell what was real and what was born of a light head and a weak body.
Jalan's voice drew him back. He was on the ground. He did not remember falling, but darkness danced at the edges of his vision, and he could barely make out Jalan's face.
"Here, Father, lie down." Saubhari felt something soft placed beneath his head, and when the darkness drew back a bit, he saw that Jalan's chest was bare.
Jalan smiled. "The day's warm." He crouched beside Saubhari. "We'll rest here for a few minutes and go on."
Saubhari closed his eyes, trying to frame his feelings in thought. It was not, he decided, that life was slipping away from him. No, not that way at all. He was opening his hands, pulling his claws back, letting it go.
Saubhari swallowed, and his voice rasped in his dry throat. "Go on, Jalan," he said. "Call down the rains."
"We're not far now," Jalan said, and there was a sudden tenderness in his voice that Saubhari had never heard before. He remembered the lilt of Rashida's voice, singing lullabies to their newborn cub. He opened his eyes, struggling to see clearly again just for a moment, to form the words he needed to speak.
"I can't, Jalan. You must. You know how. You know the words."
"But I don't believe them," Jalan said softly, and Saubhari's sight sharpened enough to see the tears in his son's eyes. Saubhari tried to reach out, then felt Jalan's hands, warm and strong, close over his. He remembered the cub's tight grip on his finger when Jalan's age had been measured in hours. It was right, all of it; everything turned in its time.
Saubhari closed his eyes again. "Call them down, Jalan."
The darkness was deeper than the jungle's night, and even more than the jungle, it felt like home. Jalan's voice shone through faintly.
* * *
From where the trail leveled into a plateau, near the top of the mountain, Jalan could see the whole jungle laid out below him. Down there, somewhere, was the village and all the creatures who made their homes in and around it, all the ones who walked each day to springs that dried and vanished, to the river that seeped around its stones instead of rushing over them.
The wind whipped at his eyes, and his vision blurred. It was cooler here, and he could see the clouds that massed on the horizon. They looked as if they were waiting.
He remembered the words, remembered his father chanting them, how Saubhari's voice rose and fell like music. For a moment, he was a cub again, hushed with awe at the sound, amazed to have a father with such power.
Jalan drew a breath and began. It was almost speaking, almost singing, and though he faltered at the wavering sound of his voice, he let the rhythm carry him forward. Nothing else mattered, nothing else existed but his voice and the wind and the earth beneath him, and he had never felt so great or so small as he did when, at last, it was done.
He did not believe the words, and he couldn't make himself believe. But perhaps he didn't have to.
Perhaps it was enough just to remember.
The wind brought the faint scent of rain. Jalan raised one palm to the sky and waited.
This work and all characters (c) 2008 Renee Carter Hall ("Poetigress"). May not be redistributed, reposted, or reprinted without written permission.