“Why did you make a deal, Grandmother?”
It is our last lesson when I ask her, though I do not know it.
She stares at me for a long time. “I do not know that you would understand, Phoebe.”
I blink at her. “But—isn’t that our magic? Don’t we always understand?”
She reaches out, which is rare, and actually touches me, which is rarer. Her thin, large knuckled hand presses against my cheek, cold radiating out from it into my warm skin. “We see, Phoebe. But understanding comes from here—” She presses her hand against my heart. “Not here.” She presses her hand to my forehead, where she says my magic rests.
I frown. “But then how do I understand?”
Grandmother gives me a look I do not understand. “You were made with a heart large enough to comprehend. But that heart will also be large enough to hurt.”
I still do not understand.
She sighs. “Come sit with me in the oak, and I will tell you all of it.”
Grandmother pulls me into her lap, her slender, bony fingers poking deeply into my skin as she adjusts me. I have never sat in her lap before. I wonder if anyone else has.
I no longer remember how she told it. I remember the story. I do not remember the words or her voice or her face as she tells it. All I remember of her face is the picture I have of her, and the expression of her eyes, which were so expressive that I still have never forgotten them.
It was a dry year, and it had been dry too long for anything to grow. Dust rose in curtains and pennants, obscuring the soft motion of heat at the horizon, catching in the children’s eyes and leaving them hot, stinging and dry. Grace was twelve, and she didn’t remember the last time it had rained. Her father had brought them to the city so he could find work, but even in the city there was little water.
And Grace knew a secret. Her parents’ money had run out, and they were gradually falling deeper in debt.
But that was not the worst secret. Grace’s mother was dying.
Grace’s sister with her soothing hands, who could ease aches and make bruises fade, couldn’t have helped even if she had known. Grace wanted the capability to heal—wanted it desperately, so she could give drink to the parched earth, smooth the lines of worry round her father’s eyes, and most of all so that her mother would live.
But Grace had no magic that she could see.
All she could do was to see, and she saw too much. She saw despair and she sank herself, without even realizing it, until the surface was so far above her that she was drowning with no way up or out. She walked out into the country one night, far after she had been put to bed, far after her parents would check. The dust scuffed up under her feet and made her choke and cough, and the water she had brought—there wasn’t enough of it. She walked, and she walked, and she walked. Finally she was alone, and lost, and all she could see was open sky, merciless, starry, and she yelled, agonized, at anything listening.
She screamed her pain and anger and loss and that she was without point and could not do anything, and that her father was lost, her mother was dying and worst of all she could not make it rain. She could not make the sweet gifts which the grandmothers and grandfathers spoke of return to her home.
She was powerless.
She screamed this, too, until she was hoarse, and furious because no one had answered, she kicked over her water, and all of it spilled out into the cracked and thirsty soil, and left her lost, exhausted, sore and with no water to ease her aching throat.
This did not stop her and she was too angry to be afraid. She walked further, yelled more.
And for another whole day she walked until she collapsed, dizzy, thirsty, crying.
A boy swept down from the heavens from the east, and then from the north another came, and south and west they came to surround her and ask why she protested against the world itself, why she accused that whom had made her of injustice.
Tears drenched her face and she cried out all the unfair things.
East touched her face in soft sympathy. South looked grieved. West swirled the dust around in his hands and stared at the horizon, his face ancient and inscrutable. North alone spoke.
His eyes were hard and cold, and his words were without mercy, and he cut away at all her disputes and arguments until all she could sob was ‘because.’ Worst of all, there was no triumph in him when he reduced all her protests to nothing. He looked older than all the others and kneeling before her, he took her face in his hands and told her that the state of the earth was not responsible for men, but the state of men for the earth.
She saw no kindness in him as she cried out all her agony and begged for aid.
His eyes became instantly darker and he forbade her to ask.
But she demanded.
My Grandmother’s deal was made.
- For tribute given and accepted four times a year, the following shall belong to the girl and her legacy:
- That rain shall always fall at command.
- That the home shall always be hers.
- That the orchard shall always bear fruit.
- That storms shall not destroy the girl nor any of her family.
The next day, my grandmother made it rain.
A day after, the first tribute was taken. The heart-rate monitors ceased pulsing, and cried out long until the doctor silenced them.
The storm flooded the long dry country. The house in the country was dry. The people who had owned the house were absent, on the road, and the water swept them away and swallowed them up. But the storm did not touch Grace though she stood in the center of the flooding and tried and failed to help.
The waters went down. It rained, and rained, and rained, and the drought had broken.
But my Grandmother never made it rain again.
It is raining when I wake. The clouds are gray overhead and the lightning cuts the sky asunder again and again. My head aches. North has refused tribute. I stare up at the storm, and then I deliberately open the windows. I want to know if he will send in something to hurt me, to prove he can, to prove that the deal is broken.
The Grandmother of the story would tell me not to tempt fate. The Grandmother who told me the story—what would she say? I do not know.
I stand at the open window and put out my hands in the rain. It is warm, as summer rain is always warm.
“Darling, why is the window open?” Mother stands in the doorway of my room, hands folded in a dish towel. She walks across the room, pulls my hands inside, and dries them with the towel she’s holding. “Do you object to me closing it?”
“I just wanted to test a hunch. And of course you can close it, Mom.” I look up at her. In the framed context of my room, she still belongs. My room is carpeted with an old carpet rug in a purple, golden and cream design that Grandmother apparently brought from Italy and wanted to give me, and the walls are painted amber gold—not yellow gold, but rich, earthy gold. I have a map of the world spread on one wall, and on the others photographs of buildings, bridges, statues, faces, hands, clothespinned on netted purple thread, or framed by Cyprian’s clever hands and leftover cedar from the deck. My bed is very low, covered in a crazy quilt I sewed myself the year I made quilts for Lucy, Cyprian and my parents for Christmas.
Mother closes the window, her brown face lit pale momentarily by a branch of lightning, highlighting the firm lines of her jaw and too definite lines of her forehead and nose. She flicks the lock and pulls me up off my knees to wrap an arm around my waist and draw me toward the kitchen. “Your father and Lucy are already gone.”
“Is Cyprian up?”
Mother laughs. “Is he ever when he doesn’t have to be? But it’s summer, darling. Let him sleep.”
“While I slave away, studying and stuff?” I smile at her.
“Well, you are nannying for Lauren from eleven. Are you comfortable going to pick the twins up in this storm?”
She sits me down at the carved kitchen table as she talks and puts sausage, a muffin and strawberries on a china plate in front of me.
“But of course.”
“Cocoa or tea?”
“Eh. Cocoa. Thanks for breakfast, Mother.” I lean up to kiss her.
She wrinkles her nose at me. “After me getting up and slaving over breakfast, ‘thanks’?”
She winks, tells me to eat, and moves around the kitchen, humming happily. I stare after her and wonder what it would have been like if Mother had taken up Grandmother’s bargain instead of me. I imagine her opposite each of the boys in turn, trying to figure out what she would do when she saw each of them.
I can’t seem to picture it. With all of her poise and grace and everything, I still can’t imagine her in that position. It belonged to Grandmother and belongs now only to me it seems. Come to think of it I can’t picture Lucy presenting tribute four times a year. She would always wear something ceremonious if she did—probably her ancient green kimono.
I’m still thinking about it when I’m dressed and in the car to pick up the twins. Rain runs in little rivers over the wind-shield. Considering my activities four times a year, I’ve always considered the name “wind-shield” painfully ironic.
The twins are in the car in what feels like seconds and making a lot of noise and soon drowning out most thoughts I could be having about what part of my deal am I going to renegotiate and how.
“What would you ask the weather to do if you could?” I ask the backseat, flicking the little mirror attached to the rearview so that I can see the twins better.
Nathan smiles at me. “Sunshine, all the time!”
Dora sticks out her tongue at him. “So boring! Summer is awful enough without lasting forever.”
“Summer is the epitome of the year!” Nathan flashes back, pronouncing epitome like i-pet-me.
“What would you ask for, Dora?” I ask, to preclude argument.
Dora studies my eyes in the mirror. “I don’t think I’d ask for anything. I think daddy would call it out of my office.”
“Department.” I correct automatically. “Thanks, Dora. That actually—clears something up a little.”
Nathan starts begging for the radio to be on at this point. I let them pick the station—something pop and Disney feeling—and the conversation in the backseat, the need to pay attention to the road, and the minty voice coming over the radio drown out all the thoughts in my head and leave me in peace.