FOR THREE MONTHS IT HAS NOT RAINED. The lawn crackles where she steps and prickly grass hurts her bare feet. Flowers have turned brown and crumbly. Everything in the garden is dry and thirsty and sad.
Ava sits under the window ledge. It is the only shaded spot in the whole yard but still she is hot and sticky. She pulls her knees to her chest and draws circles in the dirt with her fingertips.
Her parents’ voices drift from the kitchen window above her head.
‘There’s little work left at the Farm. The crops haven’t been watered for two weeks. His sons work there. It’s us from the village that will—’
‘Will it come to that?’
Her father doesn’t answer.
The front door closes and Ava watches him walk down the lane. Even from behind he looks glum. His shoulders are round and low. He hasn’t laughed for weeks. He doesn’t go out like he used to; straight after work on Friday, coming home in time to give her a sour whiskey kiss goodnight. But even though he’s sad, she is happy that he doesn’t go out. Because the village men are disappearing.
No one has told Ava of this, but she hears it whispered as she rides her bike in the street. One by one, they go out to work, to the shop, for a walk, and don’t come home. And Luke can’t come out to play. He has to stay at home and be the man of his house.
Ava goes to the end of the lane and sits on the iron gate. The metal is hot against her legs. She rocks, but it barely moves. With Luke’s strong push, the gate would shudder on its hinges. They spent hours there; swinging each other, whistling through blades of grass, or sitting in bored silence. In the evenings the men would come around the bend from the Farm. Luke would jump down without a word, fall into step and go home for his supper. Her father would break away with a salute and walk with Ava down the lane.
She thinks about the last time Luke was here. The day his father disappeared. They sat under the hedge, their legs squeezed together to avoid nettles and briars. Luke made up a story about a forgotten well, hidden beneath the weeds. They imagined a bucket on a string that would lower into the dark. The well would be narrow and deep and there would be a plop when they found the water. They would fill the bucket and when they drank, finally, it would be the clearest, freshest, coolest water. One sip and they’d never be thirsty again. The whole village would never be thirsty again.
Tonight, three men come around the corner. They shuffle as though their boots are too heavy to lift. Their heads are down, backs curved. They pass without a word. The smallest, a few steps behind, lifts his head and looks at her. His face is burned and the skin on his nose is peeling. His eyes are pale and watery. Ava knows her father will not come around the bend this evening.
Since it’s just the two of them for supper, Ava’s mother doesn’t cook. She’ll save the water for the morning, she says. They have brown bread with jam, the slices stacked in a pyramid on one plate at the centre of the table. Her mother eats only one, taking tiny mouse bites and sipping milk through her teeth. Ava picks apart the bread, waiting. Her mother just stares at the wall, then dusts the crumbs from her hands and pushes back her chair.
‘Where is Daddy?’
Her mother looks down at her. Her brow creases, and then straightens and she smiles.
‘He’s gone away for a while. That’s all.’
‘But we should do something.’
‘He’ll be home soon,’ her mother says, turns to the sink and rinses her glass in dirty water.
The next morning the last of the town water dribbles from the tap. Ava is sent to the stream. Although she hears low voices in the street, she meets no one on her way. She passes Luke’s house but the door is closed and the garden empty.
The stream is in the woods at the edge of the village. It is dark and cool
under the trees. Women chatter quietly as they stand in line. The stream is dry. They wait in turn to fill jugs from a thin spring, gurgling up through the rocks.
Ava stands behind a woman in a white blouse and her small round friend.
‘I’m telling you, Stella,’ says the round woman. ‘Nearly all the Farm workers have gone. The postman hasn’t been seen for days and Paul’s café has been closed all weekend.’
They shuffle forward as the line moves.
‘It’s got a strong hold on us this time,’ she continues.
‘It will be hard to break,’ Stella says.
‘Hey!’ the round woman yells to the top of the queue. ‘Only one jug each. We all have to get some.’
Ava stretches on her tiptoes but can’t see past Stella and her friend.
‘I have four children at home,’ shouts a shrill voice. ‘I have bread to make. Do you want them to starve as well as die of thirst?’
‘We’re all thirsty,’ yells the round woman. ‘I’ve as much of a right to water as you.’
‘Calm down,’ says Stella. ‘Fighting won’t bring our husbands back.’ She sees Ava and smiles at her.
‘My Daddy is gone,’ says Ava. ‘Mother says he’ll come back. But …’ She looks down at her dirty brown sandals.
‘Your mother doesn’t understand. She wasn’t born here. She hasn’t seen it happen before, to her father and her grandfather.’ Stella takes Ava’s hand. ‘We have to hope and pray for rain.’
The shrill-voiced woman steps away from the spring, a jug in each hand.
‘Hoping and praying hasn’t done much good so far,’ she says. ‘My husband has been gone for nearly two months. We’re running out of time, if it doesn’t break soon— ‘
‘No,’ Stella says. ‘They always come back. I’ve spent my whole life here. They always come back.’
Another woman, with a pointy face and a blue headscarf, stands behind Ava.
‘I heard about a village in the North where the rain came after one hundred days and it was too late. I see everyone is hanging out the seashell chimes and burning dry leaves, but maybe we can do more. We could surround the village with pebbles from the seashore.’
‘How are we going to get pebbles from the seashore?’ asks a voice from the back. ‘My grandmother swore by the herbal charm, I’ve been brewing it for weeks.’
‘My mother gathered spiders to bring rain,’ says Stella.
‘And moss,’ says someone else, ‘take damp moss from the forest into the dry air.’
Ava listens as the women bounce charms and remedies back and forth. She reaches the top of the line and fills her pail. As she leaves the stream, she hears the round woman’s voice.
‘I just hope everyone is doing their part. It’s the few people who won’t help, will ruin it for the rest of us.’
Ava drops her pail. Water flows out and seeps back into the dry brown earth.
At home, her mother is in the kitchen.
‘Ava! This is only half full.’
‘I did fill it up, but it spilled. I know how to bring Daddy home. I have to make it rain.’ She spins around the kitchen. ‘I have to make it rain. I have to make it rain.’
‘Stop! Who told you that? Such nonsense.’ She shakes the pail. ‘There isn’t enough water here. I’ll have to go myself tomorrow.’
Ava unscrews the jam jar lid and places it in the dry clay of the flowerbed. She has searched the garden and decided that this is the biggest rock and the best place to begin. It is heavy, so Ava needs both hands. She squats before it, wriggles her fingers underneath and with all her strength pushes it up onto its side. There is a flurry of insects, but no spiders. Or maybe they were too fast for her to see. The shape of the rock is marked by the darkened soil where it had been. It is softer and cooler than the rest of the flowerbed. A centipede runs in circles, its feelers trembling. Ava is sorry for the insect, whose home she has destroyed. She tries to push the rock back but it is too heavy, so she builds a tower of smaller stones in its place.
She climbs into the attic. It is dark and musty and even hotter than outside. Dust floats in the light of a single bulb. Cobwebs stretch from the walls to the beams and around the edge of the room. The corners are dark and shadowy, so Ava begins in the centre. At first, she moves boxes carefully with one hand, the jam jar ready in the other. She wishes Luke was here. He wouldn’t be afraid. He would barge through, kicking boxes out of his way, catching spiders with his hands. She looks to the corner. If she was a spider, that’s where she would be. Safe in the dark with old clothes and furniture. She takes a step. Listens, looks over her shoulder. She takes another step. She moves a box of old jigsaw puzzles out of her way. The cardboard whispers as it slides across the wooden floor. Further in is a yellow tricycle; Ava’s from years ago, before she learned to ride a bike. A thick woolly cobweb dresses the handlebars. She crouches, shuffles forward and moves a bag by the wall. Then she sees one: a fat black body, long pointed legs like needles. He stands as if on his tiptoes, absolutely still. She brings the jar down, scoops him up and screws the lid tight.
Three afternoons she spends in the attic, looking for spiders. It doesn’t seem so dark now. She has one jar to trap them. Another, with a lid, to store them. She watches them through the glass: spiders as small as a dot, skinny grey long-legged ones, and a big one with a round hairy body and black eyes that frighten her. She tries to count them but loses track as they scuttle up and down the glass and over one another. How many will be enough? She wishes she could ask Stella, but her mother won’t allow her back to the stream. Her mother still says that Daddy will be home soon, but she says it more quietly each day, and her face is grey with worry.
Ava takes the spiders from the attic and puts the jars in a row on the front steps. She sits beside them and feels tired. The air is heavy and quiet. Suddenly, the heat goes out of the afternoon sun. Goose bumps prickle her skin. A huge grey cloud passes in front of the sun and the day darkens. Seashell chimes ring out, as a wind whips up the street. It catches her jars and knocks them over, breaking glass and freeing hundreds of spiders who vanish in all directions. Then the rain comes. Fat heavy drops bounce off the ground. Ava stands out in the yard, stretches her arms and tries to catch them in her hands.
It rains all day and all night. The next morning is clear and fresh and everything is washed clean. Her mother opens all the windows to air the house, and cleans the dust away with buckets of rainwater.
At lunchtime he comes. Head bowed, he steps in the kitchen door. Her mother looks at him for a minute.
‘So, you’re back.’
He stares at the ground and does not answer. His clothes are dirty and wet and his chin darkened with hair. He smells of Friday nights. Ava doesn’t move and he doesn’t call her to him. She looks out the window and wonders if Luke will keep going to the gate. She knows that she will not.