by Maryetta Henry
Runestone, volume 6
Runestone, volume 6
by Maryetta Henry
“All clear over here.” The disembodied voice added to the eeriness of the abandoned village. I suppressed a shiver as others echoed the call.
I’d known when we set out we wouldn’t find life, unless you counted the brown and shriveled leaves of ivy, determedly clinging to the village well. The thick coating of dust on abandoned buildings told the story of a place too long without water.
The rest of the search party was already moving on. A dust cloud obscured their progress as they hurried down parched pathways. Their speed driven by the hope that the next village would be different. Would have life.
I knew better.
Alone among tumbleweeds, I knelt and rummaged in my knapsack, working quickly. I’d have to hurry if I wanted to catch up before my absence was discovered. I set my tin cup on the edge of the well and added tea leaves. Next came a roll of cotton batting. I pulled off a small piece, tucking the rest away. Lastly, a battered compass. Notches in the bronze case counted the empty villages we had encountered. The cover flipped open into a rudimentary map.
With a deep breath and eyes pressed shut, I pushed my consciousness into the ground. I let thoughts of running water bubble in my mind as I searched for the joyful streams that ran beneath the land. If you looked hard enough.
And long enough.
What I found wasn’t a joyful spring, but a sluggish creek, parched as the land above. I immersed myself in it, momentarily overwhelmed by the anguish of the stagnant water. Gasping with effort, I flooded the tired trickle with memories of rain, rekindling a long lost love of movement.
I pulled my thoughts back to the surface, focused on the batting in front of me. The water followed, infusing the cotton with moisture until it doubled and tripled in size, forming a small cloud.
So small. It wasn’t nearly enough to end the drought; it would have to do. Already it held all the water to be found; even the browned ivy crumbled to dust as the last of the moisture filled the cotton.
Carefully, I lifted it off the ground. It had one more service to perform here. A gentle squeeze filled the cup I had set aside, swirling into light brown tea. It was a necessary luxury; the work left me drained, and I needed stamina to catch up with the others.
It was the work of moments to check the bearings on the compass, giving the cloud a gentle breath in the direction of home. I wasn’t sure how long the makeshift cloud would hold before releasing its load. For the hundredth time, I wished there was a better way to ensure it would reach the friends and families we had left behind.
I added a notch to the compass, then tucked it away. There’d be many more stops along the way to reverse the disaster I had created.
The day ended much as every other for our search party. A small fire; we couldn’t afford to ignite the dry scrub grass in the brown landscape. A few embers, enough to warm a weak stew to a palatable temperature. It was thinner tonight, our meager supplies struggling to stretch over a journey of unknown length.
Five pairs of eyes studied our bowls as we ate. Quiet enveloped us, driven by knowledge that talking only made our thirst worse.
Johnson broke the silence. “It’s your turn tonight, Evans.”
My tired brain barely comprehended the words. Exhaustion from the earlier magic pulled at me, making me desire nothing more than my bedroll. The early sunset of late fall cast shadows from tress with no leaves, branches silhouettes against the sky. I stared at him until realization sunk in.
He wanted me to entertain our small group, preferably with something to take our minds off our current troubling journey. A recent addition to our evening routine, swapping tales for a few moments of human interaction in the flat, suffocating wasteland around us.
I made a show of scraping my bowl, pondering what I had to contribute. I never possessed that particular talent of making people laugh. Or even feel at ease. Lacking inspiration, I thought back to what each of the others had shared in their turn.
We’d lived a typical day on Johnson’s farm, finished with an anecdote about his cow. She had a fondness for swimming in the duckpond on his neighbor’s farm, and the geese who viciously protected her right to swim with them.
Murphy spoke fondly of his wife and daughters, telling tales of the youngest girls, identical twins who tormented their father, and the customers in his butcher shop, with pranks and childish tricks.
In a few stories about our travels, Franklin kept us in stitches. He could turn a simple encounter with a grasshopper into an adventure, impersonating the cricket, unimpressed with our passing through. Then he’d told it again, a deep voice from his big chest speaking as if the grasshopper where the king himself, inspecting his subjects.
Quiet Wilson had mimed scenes from history, impersonating a figure on a large steed until we guessed correctly, moving on to other great battles and treaties.
The exercise didn’t help, leaving me as uninspired as before. The secrets I kept buried prevented me from sharing stories of home or family. I did have some talent in oration, or so I’d been told. I’d delivered a few of the more rousing of our historical speeches at celebrations and festivities. Maybe I could use that to my advantage tonight. Yet none of the speeches I had memorized, speaking of bravery and courage in the face of challenges, seemed right. Words of encouragement from long lost leaders were an empty and callous reminder of our own struggles.
Discovering the abandoned village earlier weighed heavily on my spirit, pulling to mind an ancient legend. The story was old, and most scarce remembered or believed. I had learned it in childhood, and called it to mind tonight. Chills ran down my spine at how eerily it mirrored our current troubles.
When our ancestors first farmed the land, it was dry, choking the crops before their heads rose knee-high above the ground. It was a hard existence, but they weathered it well. Our knowledge of irrigation is due to their ingenuity. There were those who were not satisfied with the slow progress, and they came together in secret, until one of their number learned the magic of calling to the water held deep beneath the ground we walk on. They called and called until the whole region was drowned in it. All seemed lost, crops they had tried so hard to preserve washed away in the deluge. But when the waters finally receded into the oceans we see now, they found fertile soil in what had once been a wasteland, and so our forefathers cultivated it and loved it and called the waters blessed and the ones who summoned it gods.
But no false god can keep his throne, and the magic died with them as, one by one, the magicians of old went to their graves without sharing the secret. It’s rumored the last of them shared the secret with his last rasping breath, but no one has ever come forward with the knowledge.
So the story went. I was one who had learned at my father’s deathbed, and he, his father’s before that. I swallowed. I didn’t want to accidentally reveal that little piece of information.
“Idiots,” Johnson grumbled, eyelids drooping, exhaustion pulling his face tight. “Should’ve shared the secret.”
“Would be real handy now.” Scratching the back of his bald head, Franklin meaningfully surveyed the landscape of drought around us.
Muttering, I repeated words drilled into me by my father. “Power like that is dangerous.”
“They had a triune body or some such to control it.” Wilson, the self-appointed historian of the group, pushed his round spectacles higher as he made a few notes in his journal to chronicle our search.
Murphy shook his head in disbelief. “The old gods had no sense. My girls learned to pluck a chicken, and, if I had that sort of knowledge, I’d pass that on, too. And teach ‘em how to use it safely.”
“I’d wait until they’re a bit older, mate.” Franklin slapped Murphy’s back, leaning in conspiratorially. “You wouldn’t want your bed suddenly doused with water, now would you?”
Good-natured laughter followed, and we rolled out bedrolls in more good spirits than my story warranted.
As snores filled our rocky camp in a small valley, I found sleep evasive. My body longed for it; my mind reeled at how dangerous this mission could become. Not just to our physical selves, we risked death if we didn’t find hospitable lands soon. Personally, the reminder of my guilt gnawed at me, threatening to overtake rational thought at every turn.
With the ease of much practice, I forced my mind to clear, wrapped my blanket tighter, and eventually found sleep.
In another week of monotonous days, we came across two more villages, and a collection of shanty houses that barely rose to the description of village. Everywhere deserted. I clung to the belief that houses stripped bare meant a family that had moved to safety. I tried not to think of burglars and fortune hunters rifling through homes of those less fortunate.
Every day, I snuck away to collect water, leaving the land even more desolate, scrub grass wilting beneath me. Every day, I sent the cloud out infused with hopeful conviction the rain would make it all the way back to civilization waiting on the edge of the wasteland, wondering if their homes would be swallowed next. Every day, I doubted I made a difference.
Low stores endangered our expedition. I thought of Murphy’s daughters, waiting for him to come home. Johnson’s family’s survival if the cow couldn’t be fed. Franklin bringing joy with his storytelling. The record of all of us contained in Wilson’s journal. Our dangerous undertaking wouldn’t be able to save the loved ones we left behind in search of a better land if we were all lost to the desert.
The painful decision kept me awake two nights. No longer could I send the water away, hoping it would do good somewhere unseen. We were the desperate ones now. Everything I collected was squeezed into my waterskin, doing little enough to fill it.
Late at night, I would take what water I had and carefully pour equal portions into the other’s waterskins while they slept. It came with an unexpected surprise. It soothed my soul to watch each rise, shaking a waterskin to gauge how much water we had for the day, pleasantly surprised there was a little more than they had remembered from the night before.
“I’ve found evidence of life!” Wilson never raised his voice; the hope held in his call had us all running over to see. It wasn’t much, a few rabbit prints in the dust. Considering we hadn’t seen anything larger than a cricket hiding in the low bushes, our elation was palpable.
Johnson, licking his lips, promised fresh meat for our stew. Wilson sat down with his journal and map, promptly marking the occasion that would hopefully lead to water, a safe place. A new home.
We set up an early camp in celebration. The hot, unforgiving sun still beat down on us, but we regarded the day as something of a holiday, and laughter like we hadn’t allowed ourselves in forever followed me as I slipped away.
Tucked well away with my pouch of tea and waterskin, I closed my eyes and pushed my consciousness into the ground. Deeper and deeper. I felt my lips curl up to a grin as, buried beneath the rocks, I found a rushing river. It didn’t take much to coax it out, bringing it up with memories of clouds and the joy of a summer shower.
Halfway through filling my cotton cloud, I had an idea.
What if I reminded the stream of a geyser? Would it effectively break through the roof of rocks, restoring life to the area and creating a sort of makeshift well?
I hesitated, glancing over to where I could still hear my jovial traveling companions. The first danger was obvious. A stunt like that would surely blow the cover on my secret.
With a mental shake, I forced myself to consider the second and more serious danger of the slowly forming scheme.
There was no possible way to know the ramifications of what I proposed. Would pulling out the water here somehow, somewhere deprive someplace else? Would a single oasis in a desert of drought do anyone any good?
Frozen by fear, I nearly lost the water I had already collected. Sensing the newly formed cloud about to float away, I somehow found the presence of mind to squeeze it into my waterskin, filling it fuller than it had ever been since we set out.
I could still feel the water pouring through my thoughts, infusing me with joy as I had so often done to stagnant creeks. Rushing through my head, it rinsed away cobwebs settled in the corners of my mind. I was able to see clearly, perhaps for the first time in so long.
First, I realized the discovery of this much water couldn’t be kept to myself. Already, feet and legs obeyed, running towards the others before my mind finished forming the thought. Hastening to catch up, the part of me I hid for so long issued dire warnings. How would I explain my discovery? How could they not hate me?
The last bit nearly stopped me in my tracks, but the surging strength and clarity of my newfound convictions urged me forward.
“I’ve found water,” I gasped the words, holding out my waterskin as proof. I was surrounded instantly, cries of exclamation drowning out the drumming in my ears. Grasping my hands together to keep them from shaking, I told them everything. “I found water underground. Deep. Deeper than any well we could build. But it’s there. A great river of it. We must have been following alongside it for ages, and finally crossed over it.”
“How do we get it out?” Peripherally, I noticed Wilson’s pencil flying over the pages of his journal, now paused while he waited impatiently for my answer.
“I can’t figure it out.” Hope deflated around me. We were so close. “There’s more.” I swallowed, words caught in my throat. “All of this,” I unclenched my hands for a moment to gesture around us. “All of this is because of me.”
Faces froze, silence descended. Even Wilson paused, pencil hovering mid-thought.
I was proud my voice didn’t waver. “I caused all the water to disappear. It’s my fault, and I don’t know how I did it.”
“The story you told. The legend. It’s you, isn’t it? You’re the child of the old gods.” So Franklin believed in the forgotten stories of our ancestors.
“Many times great-grandchild, actually. They weren’t gods, and they all died at ordinary ages like normal people do.” Momentary satisfaction burned as Wilson turned a new page in his journal to catalog the discovery. At least, until I realized he would want me to share my intimate knowledge of the ancient stories to fill that new leaf.
“The water, Evans, get back to the water.” Intense, Murphy turned me to face him, eyes wide.
“How did you get this?” I hadn’t noticed when Johnson took my waterskin, tasting and inspecting the contents. “It’s pure.”
“From underground. I call to it, pull it up a bit at a time. Not enough to do any lasting good.” Before I lost my nerve, I told them of my plan, coaxing the stream up to the land to revitalize the surrounding area. “I don’t know if it will work,” I concluded, looking into each of their eyes for the first time since I started.
I was surprised to find no anger there. Either they hadn’t fully realized the damaging nature of my confession, or they were too eager to solve the puzzle before us to worry about my betrayal.
Johnson, with his background in farming, came up with a different solution. “Can you channel the water underground, like an irrigation system, and direct it home?”
I shook my head, already turning to answer the question Franklin asked, “I can only draw it out, mostly by reminding it of rain.”
More questions followed, until my head spun. Wilson was quiet, recording every word in his journal. Suddenly, he interrupted us, exclaiming, “I figured it out!”
Instant quiet reigned as we turned to look. “Water needs movement, yes? So we give it what it needs, in a way that helps us.” Blank stares regarded him, wondering what was so exceptional about restating the problem.
He pushed his spectacles up higher and turned the journal to face us. “This is what I propose. We dig a channel, starting from here.” He paused to tap the page with the top of his pencil. “Then you call the water up, let it rain down on our makeshift river. That brings it where we want it. Like an aqueduct.” The sheet held rough topographical sketches, showing possible routes for our man-made river toward the homes and livelihoods we had left behind.
More talk of logistics followed. Quietly, I listened to the others plan. Could it actually work? The guilt I carried slowly eased the bands around my heart as the path to right my wrongs lay before me.
Later, cloaked in the evening darkness, Johnson placed his bedroll beside mine, moving us further away from the others. “Want to talk?”
I didn’t have to ask what he was referring to. The bustle of activity earlier had left me drained, but I knew real peace would be elusive until I released this last burden.
“It was midsummer’s day, and I wanted it to be sunny. There was to be a picnic, and I didn’t want it ruined.” I waved down Johnson’s interruption. I had to get through this all at once. “The clouds were so heavy, I knew it would rain. So I tried calling the rain up in the clouds to come down, so the sky could clear.”
Stupid of me, really. “I’d never practiced calling before, except the controlled ways when I was learning. I’d never thought it was a particularly useful legacy, since so much damage had been done meddling with it in the past.”
“How did that cause the drought here? You hail from a town even farther from the edge of this wasteland than my own.” Johnson’s face screwed tight with confusion.
“That’s what’s killing me.” My head dropped, the pain overwhelming me. “I don’t know what I did wrong. It rained all day on midsummer, and never rained again this whole harvest season. When I heard about the drought, I figured it must be all the rain I called down, depriving the land here. That’s when I volunteered to join the search party.” It had seemed like a good idea at the time.
“It hasn’t rained here for a lot longer than that.” I don’t know when Franklin had come over to sit with us, but his deep voice was oddly comforting.
“I thought it had happened suddenlike.” Instinctively, I looked for Wilson, who always had such answers, unsurprised to find he had quietly joined the group.
“It was rather quick for the onset of a drought, but nothing as quick as all that.” Wilson flipped through his notebook for the answer, but Murphy responded first as he sat up cross-legged on his bedroll.
“Hasn’t rained here well on a year, and dry spells long before that. My wife had folks out this way. Came to live with us, and we’ve had them near on a whole growing season.”
My mind whirled, the possibility intoxicating. “You’re saying I didn’t do it?”
Franklin flashed me a grin. “Well, not being all magic like you, Evans, I couldn’t say for sure,” he made a great show of scratching his chin in thought. “I’d say you didn’t cause all the rain to suddenly stop falling.”
Relief flooded through me. I was glad to be sitting on the ground, as I’m sure my knees were watery with the sudden peace growing inside me.
Murphy settled himself back into his bedroll. “You’d better get some sleep. You may not have started this mess, but you sure as rain are going to get us all out of it.”
SUNY Canton College of Technology
Maryetta Henry is currently a part-time online junior at SUNY Canton College of Technology in the Legal Studies program, gladly filling her free elective courses with all the writing classes she can find. When not writing, you can usually find her behind a piano, or with her nose in a book.