The blaze that engulfed my hometown began before I was born. It began with the first dry leaf from the first almond tree they planted on the side of the town hall road. My mom planted it as a child, around carnival time, the year when her dad the Mayor decided that the town would grow. The Mayor brought in a fair with pink and purple carousels and a Ferris wheel that overlooked the whole valley, and for the first time he organized a long parade by the lake. Nobody missed it. There were rainbow-colored floats with musicians and people dancing, the women’s vermilion skirts whirling in the breeze; there were cages with animals from the world’s four corners—downcast felines, screaming parakeets, llamas and dromedaries, and more—and all sorts of other wonders. Here and there, the children bought bucketfuls of cotton candy, milk and coconut treats, and caramel-covered apples, while the adults drank beer and shouted their merriment to the skies. At the closing ceremony, after the parade’s success, the Mayor unveiled a plan to make the town pretty: he commissioned a lakeside playground, paved all the main roads, and planted rows of almond trees leading to the town hall.
The playground posed more of a challenge than was expected. The workers who leveled the terrain complained of crocodile sightings; later, a few townsmen protested the park pending expulsion of the crocodiles, yelling that it was outrageous to have the children so close to hungry beasts. The whole project would have fallen through but for the timely arrival of three German researchers, specialists in marine life, who agreed to hold a panel on the reptilian threat. They dismissed it unanimously, saying that crocodiles are wont to sunbathe in the mornings, when the children are at school, and that in the weekends adult supervision alone would stave off disaster. Two of the Germans left, the Mayor named the third one Commissioner of the Lakeside Playground, and works went ahead.
The town hall was to be remodeled after the most fashionable designs; the Mayor brought an architect from the capital to survey the hall and draft alternatives, and by the time of the festivities they had chosen the hall’s novel look, a combination of Hellenic, neoclassical, and colonial architecture with a Moorish tinge. The crowd loved it, and it loved all the promised improvements, and it loved it when my mom planted the first almond tree; this they loved enough to make a tradition of it, as if almonds were to lead in the new prosperity. When mom finished Accounting in college, the trees already spanned the whole town.
* * *
If the carnivals of my childhood had neared the first one in size, mom would have likely not found me the time I got lost in the crowd; but even by the time I was born the drought had blanketed the town with dust and reduced the lake to a murky pond. Even the gigantic crocodiles in the Mayor’s stories were gone. Our parents were too busy handling the drought to mount and attend the parades they used to know, yet some of them returned every spring, took us to see a dozen floats, and told us stories. The last year I went to the carnival, the Mayor squeezed my shoulder and swept the whole procession with his glance. Perhaps he wanted me to say something, but the scene did not move me to words. He spoke:
“Son, look at that float with the bits of glass all over it. See the way it breaks the sun into rays of light? That’s the closest they come these days to the splendor of the first carnivals, and it’s a long way away… But it was lovely. I’m too old to do it now, but I’m certain that a young man with vision will get elected and turn time around. You’ll see. This marsh will once again see days like those when I was the Mayor.”
Out of respect I spared him that I did not want to be Mayor and that the marsh was no more. I smiled and walked over to the playground, to the gleaming swings he built, and from there I watched my mom for a while. She forgot the parade and kept her eyes on me till I returned to her side—she never wanted to lose me in a crowd again. It terrified her, as if very few people ever got lost, and fewer still returned. And I was virtually an adolescent! How she must have despaired years earlier, when she waved at an acquaintance and turned around to find that her five-year-old boy was gone.
I thought she must have got lost as a child to dread the thought so much, but if she did she had never told me the story. Her fantastic childhood tales teemed with mischief, like the time Dobermans chased her and her brother across a neighbor’s yard, or the time she and her sister Ruth straddled a broom and jumped from the top of a tall dresser. Ruth noticed my mom’s reluctance, so she went first. She pulled out the drawers to climb them as steps, then she commended herself to moon and yelled “without God and without Holy Mary!” The next moment she was standing across the room on both legs, her eyes wide open.
“I flew!” Ruth claimed; mom said she preached it as gospel. “I flew! Did you see that? You have to try it! Come on!”
This breed of danger filled mom’s childhood capers—a peril made of fangs, of leaps and sprints, of drowning, and in general of being harmed. That night at the carnival, after I left the swings, I tried to probe her past for remnants of that other danger, the danger of being helpless, of being lost.
“Mom, did you ever get lost when you were a kid?”
“Hah. No son, when I was a kid children didn’t get lost in this town.”
“Because when I was a kid we knew how to get anywhere. One time I walked home all the way from the river—and on a wounded foot!”
“How did you get injured?”
“I was with your aunt. When we were kids, your aunt and I would gather some friends of ours, and we’d go play in the river north of here. It’s dry now, but it used to run down the side of that hill. That was the river that fed the lake. The water was always freezing-cold, but we’d jump in anyway and spend all day swimming, and sometimes we’d try to catch fish. One day I caught a catfish. I don’t know if you’ve seen catfish. They’re fat and they have two things like whiskers around the mouth, and on their back they have a long bone, like a spike, but you can’t see it. I didn’t know it was there. When I caught the catfish I put it on the ground, but it kept moving all over, so I stomped on it and the spike pierced my foot right through. I started bleeding and we got scared, so we grabbed one of my socks and wrapped it tight around the hole, and we made the walk back. Hah! Why do you make that face? It’s not that impressive. It’s not like we could just stay.”
* * *
I left my hometown on the twentieth year of the drought. I left to become an engineer at the state university, and also to chase a green-eyed girl. I wanted to come back and revamp the town’s drainage system, which I thought could be used to bring water in. It wasn’t a new idea; in his early years as the Mayor, when floods still loomed, my mom’s father had built a vast network of drains and tunnels under the town. One or two years into the drought, at my mom’s wedding, state officials suggested that the town pump water in through the network; but people adjusted or moved away, and no viable proposal ever reached the Mayor.
The possibility tantalized us from the minute we heard it. We were the kids who played soccer in recess; every time we kicked the ball it vanished in a thick cloud of dust that burned our eyes, and at the end we had to drink from the same jug of water. At home we could not have pets and we couldn’t shower—we had to take baths. Often we saw old women plod through the sweltering noon, panting their lungs out, too hot and thirsty to sweat, and with no more shelter than the shade of almonds. Our parents rationed water so strictly because there were no other towns in the valley, so the water had to come in tankers from the other side of the hills. When our teacher discussed the drainage system, I entertained drilling a hole through the range to connect our hometown with the world outside, and the matter was settled—I would end the drought.
Two of us soccer kids went to the state university. In grade school we were eleven, but six left when their families moved to wet regions, and three more stayed at a local school. I saw my one friend irregularly—his studies split us for weeks at a time—but at least I had him, and I had cassettes of my mom’s voice to which I listened at night, and I had the daily walks I took around campus: the marvel of equestrian fountains and blue water lilies in the college ponds. Our town didn’t even have living flowers; arrangements sold for a fortune at our luxury shops.
During one of my walks in the last days of summer, elated by the dark clouds, I stared down at a black pond to see my reflection, and between three lilies I saw the face of the green-eyed girl. There she was: auburn hair, slender nose, sharp features. She was years older than me—as were all the women in my life—, modest of shape but blindingly pretty, even with no makeup on.
Except for almond tree leaves, her eyes were the one green thing in my hometown. When I left for college the tan clay dirt had washed away the hues of every wall and sidewalk, and the crackle of dry leaves echoed our every step. Even at my last parade the streamers brushed the sky not golden, but white and gray, as if to lift a hopeful prayer for grainy days.
The green-eyed girl and I recognized each other; I commented on the lilies, she smiled, and we sat down.
“I’ve got to take some of these things back home.”
“Good luck growing them!”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, where will you put them? In bathtubs?”
“It won’t be a problem,” I said with a smug wave. “I’m going to end the drought.”
“Hah! Isn’t that what the trees are for? To give off moisture? And you see how well that worked.”
I could scarcely follow the thread of my conversation; she was too beautiful to argue with.
“Personally,” I said, “I think the trees might as well be what’s been sucking our town dry. They obviously aren’t helping. Either way, my plan is a lot better than trees.”
“And what might your plan be?”
I explained it to her. In her perennial high spirits, she said that it sounded too expensive for the state government and joked that I’d still have to rid the drainage system of the tons of dry leaves that we’d been sweeping in there for decades.
“Besides, let’s say you could do it. Half the town is deserted anyway. Everyone’s moving away.”
Before I could answer, tiny, cold beads struck my hands. I looked around for the source, and at once my confusion melted into primal joy.
“Speaking of ending the drought,” she resumed, “it’s getting cloudy. I think we better go to the dining hall.”
Suddenly, it was pouring. All around us, bored students popped their umbrellas open, or pulled their coats over their heads and scrambled to the nearest door muttering curses. The green-eyed girl was standing, looking at me, smiling as if to say “hurry up,” but as I got up my knees trembled and I couldn’t hear my voice.
I had never seen the rain.
I fell in love that instant.