Drought

[fiction]

Since coming here, the bright red-orange of my skin has begun to fade into a washed out but stubborn stain. The gold of my eyes, too, has dulled to a yellowish brown.

This place—they call it a school. We’ve been here almost a year now, and on my first day of class, as we sat in the rows of desks facing a woman with colorless skin and yellow hair, I raised my hand and asked, “Why is it spelled with an h?”

She blinked at me. Those strangely colored eyes—blue, they call it. “What, honey?”

I wanted to ask what honey was too, but I knew it was better to go one question at a time. “Why does school have an h in it if we don’t pronounce it?”

She smiled at me as though I’d finally discovered some far-flung moon that she’d known about for ages now. “That’s because it’s a silent letter, honey.”

A silent letter. Who had ever heard of such a ridiculous thing? That’s what I thought then, except now I am beginning to think differently. I like silent letters, how they hide within words and within sounds, the way you cannot see them in speech but you know they’re there. If you don’t know the silent letters in a word, then you don’t really know the word at all.

I have silent letters in me, too, I think. Things I have tucked away in my mind that the teachers and doctors can’t see. I can do nothing about the loss of my red-orange coloring or the golden glow of my eyes, but my memories—I can hold on to them, as best I can, for as long as I can. I clutch at them in desperation, as though my sheer force of will can keep them alive in my mind.

*     *     *

In the dark of our dormitory, everyone is stirring restlessly. The low rumble of thunder drives the fearful youngest girls to me, and I am sitting up in my bed with children in my lap. They are too young to remember that this thunder heralds the coming of the red rains. Too young to recall the time before they came—the colonists from Earth. 

I whisper about the night sky after the red rains—a sky so black and clear and glittering that it kissed the breath right out of my mouth.

“Mar…Mar…” someone whimpers as thunder rattles the building. I hear pattering feet running down the aisle, and a little girl crawls up into my bed beside me. Emily.

Mar. They mean Margaret, which is and is not my name. The school assigned us names when we arrived, sullen-faced, teary-eyed. Fearful, wary. I am Margaret, my brother Harry, and some days I almost forget I was ever called anything else, in a language utterly different from English. But living at school, constantly hearing and reading and speaking and writing in English, I have begun to lose my mother tongue. But I suppose Margaret is not too terrible of a name—mostly because it contains within it Mar. Almost like Mars, which is the name the colonists call this planet. My home. I would like to think that even in unnaming and renaming me, the colonists have failed to erase who I am, where I come from.

A loud crack of thunder startles someone into crying. Lightning illuminates the dormitory in stark, harsh whiteness. In the flash, I see that all the older girls, like me, are sitting up in bed. Their faces are turned towards the window, their faces hungry. Waiting. We remember what the red rains are like.

“Shh,” I whisper to the crying girl, smoothing her hair. The littlest ones don’t speak anything but English now, but when they first came they hardly spoke it at all. I, having the best grasp on English out of all of us, helped them along, and since then they have always clung to me. “Shh. It’s the red rains coming.”

“Red rains?”

I lean forwards and begin to tell the little girls congregated around me about what it was like before the Earth colonists came. In all honesty, even my own memories of that long-gone era are limited and fading into fantastical glimmers, but I do my best. I whisper into the dark about the canals, how they filled to the brim once a year when the red rains came in wonderful torrents, how we all went swimming. This, I do remember. How could I not? The cool water, the splashing and laughing, all of us washing reddish dust from our skin and faces. My mother’s hair fanning out around her head as she floated. My brother spewing a stream of water from his mouth at me, his eyes bright and glimmering with excitement.

I whisper about the night sky after the red rains—a sky so black and clear and glittering that it kissed the breath right out of my mouth. My father and I would stand on the red rocks or climb the crimson dunes to marvel at the stars. They all had names and stories, but I’ve forgotten.

“Mar?” A thin, high voice.

“Yes?” I say.

“Will we get to go and play in the canals too?”

I close my eyes. Thunder calls out again in its booming, commanding voice, summoning me to come outside and dance in the red rains, to soak the color back into my fading skin, and I ache with the longing.

The answer is, of course, no. The time of playing in canals and standing on the dunes is over now. I take the little girl’s hand and stay silent. I don’t have the heart to tell the truth. I don’t have the heart to tell a lie that will only disappoint.

*     *     *

The colonists came without warning, one day, simply dropping out of the sky. I was inside, chattering to my mother about what my friend and I were planning to do for her birthday, when a deafening roaring exploded into the air and there was a crash so loud and strong it swallowed up every other sound. A wave of force, a ripple coursing through the ground beneath our feet, threw us down roughly. Dazed, I watched a great cloud of red-orange dust engulf the world. I remember coughing so hard that tears came to my eyes, the feel of the gentle weight of my mother’s trembling hand resting on my back. I remember the moment I finally drew in a breath and could breathe, remember thinking I’m alive, not knowing…not knowing, not knowing what was coming.

We ventured outside, hand-in-hand, my mother gripping me so hard I thought all the bones in my fingers would splinter and shatter. She had lovely skin, my mother—a deep scarlet, with an undercurrent of bright copper.

The cloud of dust thinned. All our neighbors were there too, gathered around nervous and dusty before a strange thing of metal and wire and who knew what else. A spaceship, later, is what I learned it was called. But I didn’t know that then, and English was strange and foreign, that day when the spaceship came and the hatch opened slowly with a hiss. I wanted to laugh when I saw them, climbing out in bulky white suits, their heads encased in what looked like bubbles.

After a moment, one of the beings lifted a hand in greeting and spoke, a crackly transmitted voice breaking the silence.

*     *     *

From Earth, with peace. That was the first line the Earth colonists spoke, though of course we didn’t understand it then. That is the line now written on our dormitory doors, painted on our classroom walls, and blinking on the screens in the doctors’ offices. But those words were not supposed to be the first ones spoken on Mars, I learned. The first words were supposed to be the same words uttered by some other space traveler from Earth, Neil something-or-other, who had either strong arms or legs. I can never remember which. I asked a doctor about it once when I went for my check-up, and he only laughed at me. The doctors like me, because they like the fading color of my skin and eyes. They like that they have successfully corrected my gait.

Corrected. They don’t know that I only walk the way they want me to so I can avoid having to go back to the physical therapist. But in the dormitory, at night, when the matron has turned the light out and left the room, I loop around the beds to comfort the littlest girls and walk in our usual loping, sloping gait. I refuse to lose that, too.

From Earth, with peace—an improvised line, because the colonists had no idea we already lived on Mars. I, too, improvise, as I tell the girls stories about the stars and give them silly names. I say when the stars cry from laughing so hard, their tears fall down to Mars as the red rains.

“Only once a year,” I whisper. “Stars are so serious that it’s hard to get them to laugh that hard.”

The first rain drops, fat and ruby colored, splatter against the window. My mother’s face swims before my eyes. My brother, howling into the sky with glee, pointing at the churning clouds as the rain pours down.

Someone gets up. I hear her feet hit the floor, and as she passes by my bed, I recognize her. Veronica. We were best friends once, before we were turned into Veronica and Margaret, before she stopped speaking altogether when we came to the school. She won’t walk the way they want her to. They send her back, over and over again, to the therapist.

Much of her extended family has managed to avoid the fate which has befallen the rest of us. In the days after the colonists first arrived, the leaders and councils met to discuss and debate, so heatedly it’s a surprise they didn’t spark a wildfire. Some, wary and mistrustful of the newcomers from Earth, wanted us to all disappear, migrating to the mountains or going underground into the ancient tunnels. Some, including my parents, argued that it would be best to coexist with the colonists, who seemed peaceful and harmless enough. My mother pitied them, those poor weak-lunged souls who struggled to breathe our air properly. We ought to help them, and maybe they can help us too.

With horror, the colonists pointed to our red-orange skin, our elongated limbs and faces, our four-fingered hands, the loping gait with which we walked. Discolored. Disfigured. Disabled. Or so they said.

My family stayed. So did Veronica’s, but most of her relatives left to go underground, where cities now unfold beneath the unsuspecting colonists’ feet. We should have gone too, but it was too late by the time we realized that the kind of help the colonists wanted to offer us was not the kind we wanted or needed. They had censuses, registration, numbers to keep track, charts about population growth. We could no longer merely disappear without attracting attention and search parties and investigations.

I watch Veronica make her way to the far end of the room. She stands on tiptoes and unlatches the window as the pane rattles from the rumbling thunder. Her hands are shaking as she opens the window and reaches out to let droplets fall on her palm. A gust of wind blasts in and I draw in a deep breath, desperately trying to fill my lungs with cold, rain-scented air, so different from the sterilized thin oxygen we breathe in here. The wind smells of the dunes, and I think I can even feel some of the dust on my skin.

When the rains come, the underground rivers will swell and overflow, and perhaps there will be dancing and swimming and singing in the tunnels.

Not so for us.

*     *     *

They came to take us away a year ago. Before that, for a while already, we had been going to English classes the colonists facilitated, and although I knew vaguely that ours was an uneasy peace, I was blissfully unconcerned. The teachers were kind and friendly, the new language enthralling, and as one of the fastest learners, I took home spelling and grammar tests decorated with gold stars.

But then something happened, something which knocked every gold star out of the sky of my imagination and slapped the smiles off my teachers’ faces. A doctor happened to test a child for a disease and found, instead, high levels of a chemical in his skin and hair. From lab results, the colonists argued that the chemical was in our water, in our red rain—a chemical that discolored, disfigured, and disabled.

With horror, the colonists pointed to our red-orange skin, our elongated limbs and faces, our four-fingered hands, the loping gait with which we walked. Discolored. Disfigured. Disabled. Or so they said.

There were rumors of children being seized and taken away in the name of sanitation and schooling, a secular sort of salvation intended to ensure that following generations might be whole and healthy. I watched my parents worry and whisper night after night. They kept my brother and me from going to our English classes, and as fear wrapped its noose around my neck, my brother and I took to sleeping huddled up so that if we were taken in the night, we would at least be taken together.

But it was morning when they came, announcing themselves by way of a raucous knocking on the door. My father froze and shouted, “Coming! Coming!” in accented English while my mother herded my brother and me into a cupboard. My hands were sweating and trembling, and I held my breath. I remember my brother pressing a crumbling rock into my palm as though somehow he had known we would be torn from the land we knew and loved, and I brought it to my nose, breathing in the familiar smell of Mars while unfamiliar, unfriendly footsteps stomped around outside. Loud voices. Slamming. Where are the children? The question punched me right in the gut; it slammed its fist into the table, and then the cupboard doors were wrenched open and light poured in. I was screaming, thrashing, as rough hands descended on me in an iron grip. The world blurred through my tears. My mother’s hands, reaching for mine, knocked away. My brother shrieking my name. My father, asking, “Where? Where?” Where are you taking them? I bit my tongue on accident, pain exploding in my mouth, the taste of salt and blood as I choked on a scream.

*     *     *

The rock my brother gave me—I dropped it, somehow, in the scuffle, but it would have been confiscated anyway. At the school, I stood in a line with other girls in the cold inspection hall, shivering. My hands were coated in red dust from the rock.

It took three teachers and a doctor to make me wash my hands.

*     *     *

The rain falls harder, singing a humming song that intensifies. Veronica puts her wet hands to her cheeks.

The dormitory stirs as thunder bellows triumphantly and lightning cracks the world in two. Wind blows rain into the room, and dozens of feet hit the floor all at once as we all run towards the open window. The older girls hold the younger ones, helping them reach the window and cup their hands to catch the rainwater, before they themselves lean dangerously far out to let the rain run down their faces like tears after a long and weary day. Someone is singing, though the rain carries the words away, and from where I stand, I can only hear the ghost of a melody.

I tremble with anticipation as the crowd shifts and I move forward. The silent letters in me stir like desert flowers waking up from the dry season, unfurling shriveled leaves towards a sky heavy with rain. I am so parched. I didn’t know it till now, how much of a desert this place is—I’ve kept my focus on surviving, on holding on to what I can, for so long that I didn’t realize I was clutching dry bones. Everything in me is crying out now, begging for the red rains to pour over them and make them like new, pleading that I sing them out into the storm.

At the window at last, the wind blasts my hair back and kisses my face with rain, welcoming me into its embrace. I cling to the windowsill. I want the storm to tuck me into the crook of its elbow and cradle me, rock me. Is it tears or rain that runs down my face?

I uncurl my fingers from the sill. A door opens, slams. I reach out a shaking hand towards the rain. Footsteps. Cold, lovely drops fall hard and fast into my open palm like gems and I open my mouth to laugh or to weep, I don’t know which, and then someone yanks me back by the shoulders, shouting, “Margaret!” and I am knocked aside onto the floor.

The matron screams, “Don’t you know how dangerous this rain is?” She slams the window shut. The force of it is enough to jolt silent letters out of their places. To rattle them. To cast them on frigid tile and dash them into pieces.

Outside, the rain knocks on the window pane, asking to come in.

 

Chihye Naomi Kim is currently a sophomore at Brown University studying English. Her writing appears in Post- and Cornerstone, both publications at Brown University. Two of her short stories have been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards with a National Silver medal and a National Gold medal.