The Gift of the Rain God
Maybe a god of the rain forest slumbers on a mountain ledge high above the valley and the lake, his ample stomach rising and falling, with his ethereal entourage, plump hand-maidens, sweetly-perfumed, fanning him with banana leaves, and six stout eunuchs standing guard, each with a finely-honed scimitar that could slice a guava into eighths in a second. Some down in the valley claim they can hear the rain god sigh, turn in his sleep, feel the breath of his exhale, and see the occasional glint of a scimitar in the mid-morning sun. Others claim…
“Chu talkin’ about, man? Ain’t no rain god. Get real, brother. E’rebody know that.”
The rowboat belonged to the house by the lake. Last fall, two residents, now gone, Tito didn’t know where, hadn’t spoken much with them, some people you friends with and others you keep out they way, had pulled the rowboat out of the lake, turned it upside down and wrapped a tarp around it, roping it securely against the winter gales. They expected to stay till spring but hadn’t. Some argument about firewood and not paying for it. Some folks want a viaje gratuito.
As spring turned to summer, the tarp gathered dried pine needles and was slow-cooking the timbers beneath. Earlier that morning, Tito pulled off the tarp, spread it on the lawn, brushed off the needles, and folded it into ever diminishing squares. He needed to be alone. To think about his conversations with Anne. The boat, the lake, the island. No one would disturb him there.
With Robert’s help, he righted the rowboat. It was lighter than Tito had imagined, the planking sun-bleached and the bronze oarlocks green and stiff. “Got me some WD 40.” They carried it down to the lake where Tito showed Robert how to tie a nautical knot. “Didn’t know my hands remembered that. Ain’t tied that knot in years.”
“Can you swim, Tito? It’s deep out there.”
“Born on an island, man. Tropical.” He told Robert about the clear waters, white sand and chattering fronds of dried palms. “Everyone learn to swim. Mother’s womb to salt water. Just like that. My family, they fishermen. Where the oars at?”
He didn’t find them in the shed, the storage space under the stairs, the kitchen junk room or the root cellar, so Tito went from room to room tapping on doors. “You seen the oars for the rowboat?” And if there was no response he knocked a little louder then eased open the door, opened it wide so he could be seen from the hallway, and spoke loudly to himself once inside the room, “Los remos, los remos”. And only stood where he could be seen from the hallway. Just because. Until he found the oars, the tiller and the rudder under the bed in the new kid’s room.
Now in the heat of late morning, Tito lay in the rowboat crossways on the bench, calves propped up on the gunwale, feet sticking out over the water, staring up at the lush mountain towering above. Anne’s words, her coaxing questions, she was leading him toward a self-discovery that had been hiding from him. He was so close to quashing that doubt.
A raptor rode the thermals, gliding effortlessly as she scanned the forest floor. Tito envied her ease of movement. “I been like you once, Mami.” His triceps were still sore from the row out to what they called the island, no more than patches of saturated marsh not far from the cliff, neither land nor water. The island was shrouded with reed and bullrush, and there was no shade. The rhythm of the oars and the swift movement of the boat had taken him back to childhood days, rowing beyond the breakers to the calmer waters where his father would throw out nets. And the pull of the oars against the water had felt good, a soothing resistance that activated the forgotten muscles he had once used to haul stuff, to put food on the table. Back in the day when this body did what it told. No arguing. No por que? Years of lifting, stacking, carrying furniture to fifth floor walk-ups, plus overtime and Sundays, had paid for Michael’s parochial school. Maya’s quinceanera. Luis’ braces. Kids never wanted nothing.
That the kids had wanted nothing made his shame all the more difficult. After all those years of sweat and a wrecked back, cast out by his own kids. Shame coated him like a great creamy crust. Anyone who saw the chalky cloak of shame would suspect that this man had betrayed his own family. Shattered a sacred trust. But the great injustice was that he had done nothing. He would never hurt a child. Family. His own nieto. It was all in Michael’s wife’s jealous imagination.
Tito drew his feet into the boat, levered his backside up and shifted his bulk backward a few inches, then let out a grunt of relief. The heat was relentless. What was it Anne said? All that matters is what he, Tito, knows.
After Michael’s wife accused him in front of his own son, he left the apartment. It was late, he had nowhere to go but he knew he couldn’t stay. The things she had said, and Michael saying nothing. Staring at Tito like he was a stranger and not the father who had carried him home from the hospital, nursed him through a dozen childhood illnesses, sacrificed to give Michael what he, Tito, never had. He had walked all night. Couldn’t remember where. Dark streets. And the next morning he buzzed Maya’s apartment. She let him in, but had already heard the story. The fiction. She made him breakfast, gave him some money, he hadn’t taken anything when he left Michael’s. No phone, nothing.
“I have kids, Papi. You can’t stay here.”
That hurt. “Where you ‘spect me to go?”
“Papi, I have my own concerns. It’s not easy.”
Perhaps Michael’s wife was right. Maybe he had hit the child. As a younger man, he’d done alcohol in times of stress. When his marriage was dissolving. He’d done things with no recall. But he hadn’t tasted alcohol in years. All the same, this sliver of doubt further grew the shame that hung heavy on him like a second skin. The shame tasted too, a bitterness around his gums. When he spat it out, the taste returned threefold.
Luis didn’t want to anger Michael. “Papi, don’t make me say no.”
“I ain’t touch the kid.”
“That’s not what she says. Says there’s bruising. Extensive. Says you’re lucky they didn’t go to the Emergency Room. Then the police get involved.”
“Anyone ask the child? Didn’t think so. You need to believe me, Luis. She doesn’t like me. Never did. You know that. You seen the way she treats me. Did I ever harm you? Or your brother? Your sister?”
“Papi, you can stay two nights. I’ll go to Michael’s and get your stuff. Then you go. Michael’s pretty pissed. If he knew you were here…”
The shame intensified. Three children. Three rejections.
Two days later Tito, with a small bag representing all fifty-seven years of his life, boarded a bus at Port Authority. He had bought a one-way ticket at random. To a town he’d never heard of. As he rode the bus, more shame oozed out of his pores and congealed on his skin. He got off where the bus stopped and guessed he should look for a room but had no idea how. Or how far the money Maya had given him would go. A Caucasian lady walking toward him tripped on a broken sidewalk and fell, dropping her shopping bag. Oranges rolled out over the sidewalk and into the street. “Damn!” She was trying to get up.
“Lady, take it easy. I’m a get your shopping. Don’t get up. See if anything’s broke.” He gathered up the six oranges and placed them back into the shopping bag.
“‘Cept your eggs!” Tito held out the egg box and it dribbled yoke onto the sidewalk.
“And my pride!”
“I’ll toss them?”
Tito helped her to her feet. She thanked him. She was a little shaken and asked him to help her walk to a coffee shop the other side of the street. Tito carried the grocery bag and the lady leaned on him. She was hobbling. “I’m Anne. I need to sit.” She took a ten dollar bill from her purse. “Please get us a coffee each. Or whatever you want. I don’t know what I would’ve done without you.”
While waiting for her coffee to cool off, she quizzed him gently. Not wanting to pry. She was good at asking questions. It’s what she did for a living. Asking questions and listening to answers. And asking more questions. Tito told her that he had just arrived in town. “I’m a look for a room.”
“Maybe I can help.” Anne told him about the house by the lake where she lived with her husband, Robert, and others. “There are six rooms. It’s a collection of people. We’re a mixed bunch. One is empty. You’re welcome to visit, see if you like the place. The rent is cheap. It’s an older place and not everyone likes old houses with their drafts and leaks. And we won’t be at all offended if you say no. If it’s not to your liking.” That was a year ago.
He hadn’t spoken to any of them since, not Michael, not Maya, not Luis. The only one he really missed was his nieto. No one knew where Tito was. Slowly, the house was healing him. Robert, Anne, even poor Juliette. They family now.
Over the months, Anne spent time with him in the sunken garden and during walks by the lake asking and listening. There was something about her that made it easy for Tito to talk. To tell her intimate things that he had told no one else. She asked about drugs and alcohol and anything else that might have clouded his memory.
A distant growl of thunder, a low-bellied vibration, a taut goat-skin drum far up in the mountain, rolled out across the lake. Tito glanced up at the sky. Still clear blue with wispy feathers of cloud, the light almost too bright.
Tito spoke to Anne about Michael’s wife and how she had treated him once he had moved into their apartment and Anne took him to a place where he almost knew Michael’s wife had been lying. “Tito, it doesn’t matter what Michael, Maya or Luis think. All that matters is what you know.”
A shift in the universe, the sky drained of light, sun absorbed by a huge sheet of desk-top blotting paper, the daytime darkness of a sudden Catskill storm.
A skittish breeze, gentle at first, stirred the air. Startled by the thunder, the slumbering god of the rain forest resting high up above the cliff, attended by those very hand-maidens and eunuchs, had woken, and, in a great gasp, sucked the leaden air deep into his lungs. The god’s chest rose and his cheeks filled wide like a pair of leather bellows, two bulging, almost bursting, bags of hot summer air. The god held steady till a tickle in the throat provoked a divine cough that expelled a stampede of storm, charging toward Tito, whipping up moisture from the lake, a rush of wetness, heavy pods of dense water, a sheet of rain flapping back and forth in the gale, slapping against the boat and the man. The lake, ruffled by the chaos, spun out into swirling eddies and spooling whirlpools.
As the rain cascaded down upon him, Tito grew less heavy. Not diminished, rather buoyant. Puzzled by his new levity, he looked down at his arms, his legs, and saw the heavy second skin peeling off. The sluicing rain was washing off the creamy crust, liquid shame ran off him and collected in the bottom of the rowboat in a greasy swill. Chalky shame ran down his face, washing out of his hair, staining his T shirt, down his ruined back.
Michael’s wife’s lies ran down his chest in lines of black print, whole sentences and paragraphs and exclamation points streaking down his body into the base of the rowboat where they diluted with rain and lake water, dissolving before his eyes.
Tito stood up in the rowboat, balanced with feet straddling the base, held his arms out like a Christ without a cross and tilted his head back, letting the rain god cleanse him, the waters stream down and around him and rinse away the bitterness. He laughed out loud into the face of the storm, the first time he had deep-laughed since Michael’s wife’s lies. The storm stole the laughter and blew it here and there and across the lake but Tito didn’t mind. He just laughed some more from deep within his belly, louder this time, his wild laughter competing with the storm.
Unmoored, the rowboat rocked and turned and headed out into the lake into the depths of churning water. He grabbed the gunwale to steady himself, exhilarated by the liquid chill and his new lightness.
Nigel Pugh is an educational leadership consultant working in the US and the EU. He lives in Manhattan and Woodstock, NY. This short story is adapted from a novel he is working on. He has had live theater pieces performed and has written for children’s TV. Should you visit the Catskills, you may see him trail running.