“... nature is not frightening,
it’s people who are frightening!”
- Soul Mountain, Gao Xingjian
(translated from the Chinese by Mabel Lee)
At first, there is no rain. The sky is clear blue and the sunbeams blinding white light. The land basks in the radiance and heat rises in dancing mirages. There is no seam between the sea and the sky. The residents shade their eyes; their skins singe.
The first wisps of white are so fine they are nearly invisible. The fisherman bobbing on his back waiting for a nibble squints hard. These cotton breaths occasionally meet and merge and fire up imaginations. They seem to be in no rush, for the fisherman can snooze and awaken to find the same shapes still above him barely unchanged. With enough time, though, the fluffy white blankets the liquid blue. Nobody notices it until it is done, not even the fisherman guiding his boat home. Only when direct sunlight is cut do people look up to the cotton cover. Without the harshness of the sun, the weather suddenly turns pleasant. Charred skins cool; people smile.
A tinge enters the pristine white, discolouring it to reddish rust. The fishermen and housewives notice it first. They don’t think much of it. The fisherman notes that he can lie in his boat like he lies under a tree. The housewife mutters that clothes don’t dry as quickly. As the dirty rust spreads, it pulls people’s eyes skyward.
The underside of the clouds starts to go brown. It is a gradual process and it isn’t uniform. Large areas remain rust and patches of white can still be conjured. But it is very certain. People predict rain this evening, surely the next. The brown takes on deeper shades in minute increments. The residents feel the difference more than see it. The potters, intimate with every subtle shade of brown the earth can produce, who can recount the history of a piece of mud by gazing into its brownness, find that this particular skill does not translate to the skies.
But the cloud ceiling looks like a reflection of the earth floor, and so, even though it is out-of-place, it doesn’t upset the residents. They find it strangely comforting to live between a brown sky and brown earth. It reminds them of their mother’s lap with a sunburnt arm on either side. The childlike feeling sparks childish behaviour. Grown women - wives, mothers, grandmothers, widows - splash water on each other at the washing stone. Fishermen grab fish with their bare hands in shallow coves. Potters wrestle in the mud until they are all the same shade of brown.
At some point, no one quite knows when, grey seeps into the brown. It is a deep, dark grey, with a lower tone than the heaviest brown. The grey sucks the colour out of the sky and the mischief out of the residents. They are reminded of their various punishments, of flashes of grey hair on angry fathers and teachers, of swinging palms and stinging cheeks. People drop their heads and stay in corners. They whisper. Nobody smiles.
When the thick dark grey cloud cover begins to expand towards the earth, nobody realises it. The clouds are high up and the rate of expansion is slow. It is impossible to see the clouds eat the air. But nature recognises it. As if pre-decided, all the winged creatures take to the sky. Crows, chickens, mynahs, koels, parakeets, eagles, kites, peacocks, owls, butterflies, bats, bees, moths, dragonflies, even birds, and insects that no one has ever seen before. Anything with wings circles above the village.
The villagers gape at the sight. The flying creatures block the grey clouds entirely with their own jagged sky, flapping, coasting, swooping, never crashing. Every move appears intuitive, like the possessed religious dancers. But unlike the loud musicality that accompanies dancers, this performance happens with funereal silence. Apart from the steady beating of air by hundreds of thousands of pairs of wings, there is no other sound – no caws or coos or titters or trills or screeches. The people on the ground have never seen birds fly this quietly. They expect a cacophony, and its absence unnerves them.
Nightfall and the winged creatures continue to fly. The beating of their wings now comes from the utter darkness and that scares the residents. No one sleeps that night. They recite prayers in hushed whispers in the dark, refusing to light a lamp or candle for fear of attracting attention.
In the morning, the jagged sky hovers solemnly. It continues without a change through that day and into that night and into the next day and night and so on until people can no longer remember when exactly the flying sky had begun. The light gradually deteriorates until it becomes impossible to see clearly even with a hurricane lamp. All work has to be suspended. Boats are tied up and wheels stop spinning. The sounds of daily work – hammering, clinking, tonking, spinning, sweeping, voices – fall silent. There are no mornings, afternoons, and evenings; only a dull dirtiness that indicates daytime, and total blackness that is night. People lose track of when to eat or wake, when to shit or sleep.
And then, one night, without indication or warning, the beating of wings stops. Unaccustomed to such silence, the residents peer into the darkness from their doorways. They gather in the open and hold hurricane lamps to the sky. Some villagers swear they heard them disperse, while others believe the sounds stopped abruptly, like the creatures had all died together in mid-air. This thought sends the residents scurrying back into their houses in the fear that dead birds and insects would rain on them by the thousands.
In the morning, not a single winged creature is visible, not even a fruit fly. It is strange to once again look up at a static sky. But this new view also brings the realisation that the cloudy sky has lowered considerably. Exclamations of disbelief go up from the villagers, but there it is - a thick dark grey cloud cover bearing down on them. There is some contention on whether the clouds have descended or expanded. But either way, they are brushing the tops of trees.
The clouds continue their inexorable journey towards the earth. The light has nearly gone out, not to a black, but to an opaqueness, like muddied waters. Treetops are swallowed, leaving headless misshapen torsos. An air of inevitability hangs over the village. People begin to prepare for a deluge. They drape tarpaulin across their rooftops and stow their possessions under. They clear fallen leaves and other debris so that drainage systems are not blocked.
The clouds approach the rooftops. People stand on their houses and reach up into the clouds. Others climb trees and stick their heads into the greyness. It is impossible to see through the dense clouds, but they can feel the soft coolness brush their skins. They try to grab some of it but it keeps slipping through their fingers. When the clouds tickle the tops of their heads, they make a game of darting in and out. Laughter abounds through the village as everyone – men, women, children – toys with the clouds. Girls play hide-and-seek with each other. Boys lift dogs into the opaque greyness. When the clouds grow past their heads, they have to duck to see and this brings further excitement.
It grows tiresome when they have to hunch and bend over at the waist like their great-grandmothers. Once they get over the initial awkwardness of it, many prefer to shuffle on their hands and knees like babies. They can see the legs of those still standing, cut off at the waist, and it reminds them of when the trees had begun to disappear from the top.
Sky continues towards the earth. Everybody now sits. Nobody stands for anything. When the clouds push people to lie down and drag themselves along like worms, they stop going anywhere entirely. Most turn to prayer and meditation. Some wail loudly. Everybody keeps track of the diminishing space between sky and earth.
Until the space ceases to exist. Sky meets earth.
A buzz goes up from the houses. What will happen now? Will the sky give in or the earth give way? The rising voices grow anxious. Some break down and weep. Others rage with fury and swing wildly at the stifling clouds. Still, others pray and hug their family. As they tire, the noise dies down. People settle down and wait.
Nobody quite knows what causes the clouds to give way. Maybe a fingernail from a flailing arm scratches the clouds. Or a particularly high-pitched wail rips the fabric. Or the pressure built by an unstoppable sky and resolute earth rends a corner. But everybody knows when the tear happens. They hear it right away. The muffled silence is replaced by a curious mix of a roar and a groan. It is the sound of the great mass of clouds letting go.
“Rain! Rain! It’s raining!” they shout. It is a strange sensation of rain, though, because everybody can hear the tremendous roar and feel the water lick their feet, but nobody can see the downpour.
The water level rises rapidly but the cloud cover doesn’t seem to dissipate. When shins submerge, people lie down but can discern no distance between the water and the clouds. Some of the more impatient men crawl their way out, feeling with their hands, to check on the drainage. They find no leaves or muck clogging the drains. Despite the free flow, the water continues to rise.
When the water covers knees, some start to panic. They lose balance in the pushy mass of water. Some others discover that they can see if they keep their eyes level with the surface. Visibility is very poor, but there is a definite sliver between the clouds and the water. They can even see the surface being disturbed by the rainfall. This brings hope. The cloud cover is reducing faster than the water is rising, even if only marginally.
Before the water encircles their waists, people decide safety lies outside their houses. There is enough space between the cloud and water to both see and breathe. Some men go from house to house to lead the residents to the large tree in the village center. Roots drop from the thick grey cloud mass and disappear into the opaque grey water below. Families cluster around roots, cold and wet, tired, and shivering. Children and the elderly are lifted onto branches and instructed to hold on tight.
The battering is relentless. Tears merge with the rain. Spirits are broken, wills shattered. Nothing makes sense anymore. Everything ceases to exist. Shapes lose form. Words reduce to noises. Sounds lose meaning. Memories disentangle from context. Senses lose confidence.
The clouds obscure and the waters submerge. Lightning flashes in the space in between, blinding everyone.
“We must leave!” a cry goes up.
“Wait here!” bark the fishermen. “We will return with the boats.”
The fishermen leave their roots and push forward. But with no land markers to guide them, no paths or signs, they are disoriented. This sea confuses these expert navigators. Using their internal compass honed over generations of seafaring, they strikeout.
The water trips them up, knocks them down. This isn’t water, they feel. This is not a natural storm. This storm does not have its birth in the natural cycles of evaporation, condensation, and precipitation, in the sun and the winds and the rains. This isn’t even the wrath of an angry sea goddess. This storm has humanity in it.
The fishermen get to their boats, each one possessed, thrashing about. Their muscles strain as they fight their way back. People clamber on to the life vessels. Parents hoist small children and feeble grandparents. There are too many people to a boat but nobody’s counting.
The first wave hits.
The waves tower over the village. They crash into the residents and their pathetic boats. They smash into the flimsy walls of their houses. They hold nothing dear and care nothing for decorum. The sea surges into the land and devours everything – trees, animals, birds, pathways, tools, carts, hand pumps, wells, boats, houses, meeting grounds, prayer houses, classrooms, lovers’ corners, friends’ hideouts, clothes, toys, utensils, people, bodies, memories.
Welcome to Climate Change Village.
Venkataraghavan is a writer-actor from Bengaluru. His short fiction has previously appeared in The Iowa Review and has been longlisted for the Toto Awards. His stories for children have been published by Pratham and MultiStory Learning. He is writing his first non-fiction book. Venkataraghavan is an alumnus of the Manipal Writers Workshop 2017 and Dum Pukht Writers Workshop 2019. He also acts on stage and screen and records audiobooks for Audible.
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