I was twelve the day my papa took me to the clinic in Old Ogallala. He left me in the small waiting room where green light filtered through the spill of lettuce, tomato, and green bean plants in the sky gardens outside while he disappeared down a narrow hallway to speak with the artist. The air was filled with buzzing and the distant sounds of a radio, but the waiting room was empty except for the girl sitting behind the desk. She held a book to her face and made no signs of having an interest in conversation. I picked a seat and waited staring at a sign that read, “No Water Kept on Premises!”
Papa returned with a guilty set of lines on his brow. He avoided my eyes when he held is hand in the air and said, “Come here, Eira.”
He took me to a room sectioned off into smaller, semi-private spaces with shower curtains of all colors and designs. We ducked behind one with tall palm trees and smiling monkeys where an old man with hard, black eyes sat.
“It was an accident,” I whispered so only papa could hear me. “I promise I won’t do it again.”
His frown was a heavy thing, wet at the corners and wordless.
My papa looked away and the black-eyed man put knife between my palms and cut fast. He made quick work of the stitches. I shed a thimble full of tears before it was done and left the clinic with my papa’s fear on my hands.
* * *
It was an accident that I met Tarn at all. I was as far from town as I could get on an ancient bicycle. The sky was wide-open and so blue it hurt to look at. I rode until I found the edges of an old wind farm and pushed my way through the late autumn wheat right up to the base of a turbine. They hadn’t been used for ages and rust grew around the pole like a fungus. When the wind blew, it drew long, mournful sighs from the propellers.
Far beneath my feet, the aquifer was losing its charge, dropping precious inches in water level. The entire town was on edge. All eyes were on the sky watching for miracles.
But the sky was selfish.
Holding my hands over the dying stalks of wheat, I felt the tingle in the middle of my palms that mean water was near and followed it through the field until my hands were warm all over. If I closed my eyes, I could sense how near it was, how easy it would be to draw up into my hands, how many things I could do with just that much.
My fingers itched. I had never been so bold. To waste water on magic was the thing most feared by my town. But it wasn’t a waste if it called water down from the skies. It was a sacrifice.
I stopped when the pull on my hands was so strong I had to resist dropping to the ground. And then I pulled back.
Water sifted up from the ground in tiny drops to pool in my hands as though I held a bowl. My hands became hot and then hotter. I tried to stop, to throw it all into the sky as I’d planned, but the water was stubborn and so hot on my skin.
I heard a noise struggle out from my throat and I knelt in the wheat to bury my hands in anything that might siphon the water from them.
“Be still,” a voice spoke in my ear and I could not do as it asked, though I tried.
Hands gripped my wrists and pushed my palms open against the earth. I closed my eyes, felt hands covering mine and little by little the pain fell away until I could hear the wailing of the turbine over the sound of my breathing.
“Still in pain?” He asked. I opened my eyes to find a boy the color of parched earth held my hands in his. He wore a dusty green jacket with a tall collar that used to be square at the edges, but had been frayed into half circles.
I moved my fingers and winced at the pinch in my knuckles, but the skin was only pink and not red and blistered as I feared it would be. “Not so much.” I continued to demonstrate my range of motion, flipping my hands over and making fists. The old scars were bright white against my palms.
He watched my hands as long as I did. Longer, even, until I pulled them away to rest lightly in my lap.
“I’ve never met another one,” I said. “Dowser.” Saying the name aloud would have seemed a brave or stupid thing if I hadn’t just tried to burn my hands off. The quiet between us was a field of wheat.
“Tarn,” he offered. “Did they do that to you?” He lifted a finger to point, but I knew what he meant.
I opened my palms to the sky. “Most parents do.”
“It doesn’t work.” He stood then and I saw where he’d come from. The door at the base of the turbine stood open and I realized he must live here. Away from everyone. Alone.
“It does a little.”
* * *
He was my secret.
I visited every month, sometimes twice, to learn what he knew. Patiently, he taught me to tease the water from the earth and guide it through the transformation. It would always burn a little, he said, the trick was in the breath.
“Soon you’ll be able to call a storm from the sky.” In the bowl of his palms, water became light and air. It was hot as flame and I could feel my cheeks warm though I was three feet away.
“Rain would help my town. It’s what everyone prays for.” I opened my hand and felt the tingle in my palm. “Maybe if I could only show them, they would understand.”
“They won’t, Eira.” He turned and the sun cast a dark shadow over his face. “It’s better not to try.”
I thought of my papa’s face on the day I’d set the armchair on fire. All it took was the glass of water I’d been holding when he told me I wasn’t yet old enough to attend a school dance. I’d argued as though my life depended on it and then the glass was empty and the chair was covered in flames that twirled and spun like girls in dresses.
“Because they’re afraid.” I studied the scars on my palms and understood, perhaps for the first time, that he thought he was protecting me. “Because they don’t understand how it can help them. Us.”
“They understand their fears above all things.” His voice was thick and I wondered at all the things he hadn’t said.
I didn’t argue because I knew it was true. My scars were not unique. The town was filled with slashed palms because of an old superstition that it would keep the magic away. My papa and I knew better, and it was the worst kind of secret.
But out here there were no secrets, because there was no one to keep them from.
“Are you afraid of them?” I asked.
He didn’t answer. In the sky above, the propeller turned, calling out to the others that stood so far away. But its call was lost to the wind. No one to hear it except for us.
* * *
The storm arrived on a summer evening when the air was so heavy with water my palms sang.
It was too much at once. The roads and spillways were too full too fast. Sirens wailed beneath long chains of thunder. The clouds carried lightening in their bellies and dumped more water than all the town had dreamed of for hours.
When water began to seep beneath the doorway, papa packed a small bag and told me to do the same. We raced through the house unplugging and lifting anything too heavy to take with us and then we left and climbed toward the school with water rushing quickly past our knees. It was enough to knock us over in places. Papa gripped my hand and we pulled and balanced against each other.
The school sat atop the only hill high enough to be called a hill in Old Ogallala. Everyone was there or making their way as we were.
Papa must have thought we were safe because the water was lower and less fierce. He let go of my hand and bent over, breathing hard. “Go on,” he said. “I’m right behind you.”
For a moment, the rain slowed and the sky shone blue and white and grey. I could hear the soft whimpers of children and the soothing words of their parents, the siren calling from the edge of town, the water rushing, rushing, rushing.
My palms resonated like bells and I turned in time to see the great swell of water racing to devour us. I saw my papa standing below me on the hill, his eyes on me, his mouth a hard line. I tasted water on my tongue and knew that if I did nothing, my papa would die.
I raised my palms and I pushed against the vibration in them. The water pushed back and I drew a deep breath to steady my feet and with a cry that sounded too full to have come from my lungs, I pushed again.
I saw the water shift, tossing waves into the air as though a thousand beasts were thrashing beneath the surface, and change its course. Just slightly at first and then with purpose. I pushed again and the water receded farther down the hillside. I pushed again and felt how quickly the water responded to me now and I continued to direct it as I walked back down the hill to where my father stood.
His eyes were soft and sad and he raised them to the sky. Behind us, the town had grown loud with murmurs. I knew they watched me, and worse, that they feared me. Papa knew it too.
He took my hand in his and rubbed one rough thumb over my palm. His breathing was ragged, tripping over tears. He opened his mouth to speak, but closed it again with a shake of his head. Then, he stepped away.
Our hands fell apart. Mine was still warm with the calling of water, but also cold without his. I didn’t need to turn to see the decision of the town, it was all over papa’s face. I said, “Goodbye, Papa,” and I stepped into the water.
Photo by [Clint] via Flickr Creative Commons