Storm Drains

The weather had been quite dry for the last month or so. It was rather strange, as time tended towards the wetter season where we'd typically get a minimum of 60 millilitres of rain. It were times like that where we'd cultivate the best of our crop and heave in loads of freshwater fish who came with the rain after suffering through the first few weeks of diminished supply as the fruits of our labour, that beyond the cane and rice that barely managed to support us in the worst of times,slowly began to grow under heaven's merciful tears.

Or that's how it should have been. But as I said, it had been quite dry for the last month of so. The blazing sun scorched our backs as we dug into hard crusts of soil, planting seeds that waited for the monsoon before bursting through the dunes that slowly built up over their heads. But the tombs hardened, and we were forced to hammer at them with a hoe to break the large solid clumps. Our cows grazed hungrily at the dry, brown grass, nursing their newborn young with what little nutrient they could provide. Many died during the first week of birth. Our crops dried too, becoming less with each harvest until we were literally scraping the barrel, both of our loads and of our dishes. Clean water became hard to get by. Instead of the malaria we came to fear at this time of the year, we fell prey to other illnesses that came with thirst and stagnant water. We needed rain to recultivate the land. We needed rain to fill the wells with brimming clear water, free from impurities that came with it sitting at the bottom of stone for an age. We needed rain to wash away the old season and bring about the new. We needed rain to ease the burning of our backs, and the lethargy it brought about. We needed rain to raise the spirits of our tired children who every day looked at the son, standing bare-footed upon the ashes of sugar-cane, and praying for clouds and rain so they could play to their heart's content instead of drag their aching feet five miles on hard-baked earth to school each day.

And then the clouds darkened one afternoon without warning, and we had the rain we'd so longed for. In the first hour we watched from our porches, tools thrown down with relief and sparse cultivated crop quickly covered with a tarpaulin sheet as our children danced happily. After that hour, the downpour showed no signs of letting up so we brought the kids inside, towelled them off and, amidst their protests, dressed them warmly to ward of any chill they might have contracted.

That night, we went to sleep listening to the comforting tap of rain on our tin roof. Halfway through the night though, we awoke to the dog howling.

It was black. The kerosene lamp had been switched off before bed. I yawned, rubbing my eyes as I reached over my wife for the matches, before throwing the covers off and stepping down onto the earth floor, expecting to feel the usual crisp dryness as I groped blindly for the lamp. What I felt however was dampness. It wasn't until I rekindled the lamp and took it to the door that I noticed the thick puddles of water in the kitchen and registered the torrents of rain pelting on the tin roof. Outside, through the windows, the thin rays from the kerosene gleamed off a murky sheet in the distance.

'Dad?'

Across from me, in front of their own bedroom door and no doubt either awoken by the insistent rain, the dog, or my lamp, were our two dear children, hair sticking out everywhere. Just that afternoon, they'd been giggling with euphoria as they'd danced with the raindrops, welcoming them back after their long absence. Now, they were trembling in their long shirts and slippers.

Tiny five year old Anika was tightly clutching her brother's hand. Nihar, a little older and far more proud, showed not the same fear in his body language, but his eyes betrayed him.

'What's going on?' he asked.

It looked like a flood. No doubt the farm was under water by now. That wasn't entirely uncommon. We lost crops to floods at least once a year, but a riverbank must have broken nearby for our floors to be soaked. We were higher up.

For a moment, I thought about our neighbours a little lower down. But then Anika burst into tears before I had even answered my son's question, and I carefully splashed my way towards them, easily plucking them both up (despite Nihar's protests) before carrying them back to our room. Shashi was awake by then, and the covers were ready and inviting.

'A riverbank broke?' she asked, taking Anika from me and gently patting her black head.

You could see the water reflecting the light and slowly creeping up. Just like it did year after year, but too fast for the regular floods we experienced.

'I assume so,' I replied, sitting Nihar down as well. 'You can see the water outside.'

Our home, like many others, were built on poles to save us from the frequent flooding. The windows always had a wide view, far enough so we could see our sun on the horizon. Normally.

'It's so soon. It's barely rained a full day.'

'But it's coming down hard, and no doubt they were weak from all the dry weather we've had.'

And if that was true, that level would only continue to rise. Our floors were currently wet only because of the leaking roof. The rising waters had only once before reached our door, and that was before we lifted the foundations.

It took awhile for Anika to stop crying. In the end, the four of us crowded into the same bed…after I took the raincoat and let the dog inside. He shook himself relatively dry on the kitchen floor, but no-body complained. It was already wet after all, and during that time Shashi and I put anything lying low onto higher ground and set buckets out to collect the drip.

When we awoke in the morning, the rain was coming down heavier than ever, the power was out, and the buckets had overflowed.

'I want it to stop,' Anika whimpered, burying her head into Shashi's bosom. 'Please make it stop.'

'At least we can't go to school tomorrow,' Nihar pointed out. He didn't like school very much, but a good education was important in today's world. Farming wasn't a stable business, especially with droughts and floods ravaging what crop we could salvage from the sometimes unforgiving earth. The tropics were not the paradise people imagined when they came on vacation. After all, how many of them scorched their back digging into dry crusts of earth to sow seeds and pull out the plants they could eat or sell before it choked the new shoots below?

A farmer's life wasn't what I wanted for my children, and it was days like this, where the rain washed away not only the heat but the fruits of our labour, that reinforced the notion.

The gas was still working, so we managed a warm breakfast, but it tasted somewhat bland as we watched the water levels creeping up. If the rain didn't stop, if the other river's banks failed, or the dam overflowed, we'd have a lot of trouble. Our food stores would only last a few days best. Our water stocks would last even less. If the roads got blocked, we'd be marooned, watching the water levels creep up past our door.

But we couldn't stay in town. That would be the next thing to go under.

In the end, I took the truck and brought some more supplies, as much as we could afford from the measly income that we had the drought to thank for. On top of that, the prices had risen dramatically overnight; no-one said goodbye to an opportunity to make money, even in an untold crisis. As I stood in the long cue holding bottles of water and rice and lentils (what we called a poor man's gold; when income was poor, we lived off the stuff), I listened to others in the same situation grumble about the parliament. Why hadn't they warned us?

Why hadn't they?

The traffic was horrendous coming back. Painfully excruciating, but there was only the main road still open. The back roads had already started taking on water. Potholes were being plugged, which meant no driver could spot them in the lack of sunlight. That, coupled with the slippery roads, spelt accidents.

I made it home safely though (and as luck would have it, the last road closed barely a half hour later), and the first thing I received was Anika's welcoming (and rather worried) hug. And then I hammered in wood to block the crack between the door and the floor as best I could.

The next night came, and the rain still hadn't let up. There wasn't much difference in the lighting; the sun, when in the sky, was veiled by the dark clouds that squeezed not heaven's tears but hell's thirst upon us. At some point during that night, the second riverbank broke as well, because we were all startled awake to the sound of our dog growling on the kitchen floor where rain was starting to seep in, despite the blockage of our front door.

The rain thundered on the roof, and Anika gave one long shriek before burying her face into her mother's skirt. Shashi patted her head gently, before picking her up into a comforting embrace.

No-one slept that night. The low-lit kerosene lamp burnt on into the morning as we all camped out on our bed…including our dog. The bedroom was a step higher than the kitchen and the kids' room. Morning came, with thundering on the roof as if heaven's rage was thundering upon us…but what had we done? We simply laboured by day and slept by night in the weariness that gripped our bones in the hopes that we would be rewarded by the fruits of the seeds we sowed, but instead we endured hot baking months to eventually end with a flood to wash away the life we knew. It happened every year, but never had it rained so long. Never after such a long absence. Not in my lifetime anyway. The farm hadn't even lasted a single night. There would be no salvaging the crop. Or the livestock…the chickens, the cow…their corpses are probably drifting somewhere amongst the rising waters. Along with the few deaths on the news before the power cut off. There had been a landslide somewhere. An entire family buried alive. For a moment I wondered if it was anyone I knew.

Then Anika slipped out of her mother's embrace to cling to me tightly in fear, ending the train.

'What will happen if it doesn't stop?' she whimpered.

'It'll stop,' Shashi comforted, but the whites of her eyes gleamed with fear in the darkness. 'Hush, just go to sleep.'

She transferred the hug back to her mother. But no-one did go to sleep. Not even when the first ray of sunshine came through our windows, signalling a coming end of the rain.

The heavy platter eased. Slowly, the clouds swept away, taking the grey with them as the lamp in the sky looked out towards the soaked earth. But all it did was throw things into perspective. The water was still rising. It would continue to rise for a while. Perhaps a half day. Maybe more. And the water was past our doorstep now. The murky brown licked the bedposts, soaking the floor.

I found myself thinking that it might not make a difference if the water continued to rise.

By breakfast, I waded through our kitchen with Nihar, water just past his knees, bringing out the fruit we had left. We didn't have any meat. The rice and lentils would have to wait. No doubt the entire town was desolate; we'd need it in the days to come, and we weren't, right now, desperate enough to eat it raw. The fruit would spoil soon anyway. It might as well be put to good use.

We drank a little water too, but it was far from appetizing, watching the water continue to seep through, now, both doors. The back door was two steps higher than the front, but that wasn't stopping the water's path.

By midday, the sun mocked us as the sheets slithered under the dreary muddied blanket. It shone brightly, without obstruction. Just as it had when we laboured over dry soil, hoping for relief. Just as it had when the children had looked up to the sky, wishing it would rain so they could dance merrily upon the cool earth rather than drag their feet over the hot crusts. At this time, it would be like hot coals, peeling cells away from our soles…but the flood was the opposite extreme. I'd have gladly put up with another month of the heat than this. A few days, and we'd already lost our floor and our farm. Others had lost so much more. Our neighbour's house…only the roof was still visible, and a single rooster. I dearly hoped they had gotten out. But like us, they probably hadn't thought to do so. It had been too fast and too sudden. We'd simply thought we'd be marooned. Our house was high enough to avoid the floods. We'd watched them recede from the posts for years. Since before I married Shashi in fact. When my parents and older brother were still alive and we'd raised the house. Our farm had gone under almost every year, but the house had always stood above that, even as some of the lower-lying ones suffered damage by the cycle.

And look at us now. Our bed was almost under water. It was one of those low-lying ones, so a three year old could stand straight and be a little taller. The dog started to whine as his fur began to grow heavy with the extra weight, but he refused to shake it off. His yellow eyes gleamed, reflected by the muddy water.

Anika couldn't stand by our front door without the water being up to her chin, and it was still rising. We were a good distance from the town, but we had no boat. We were far away from the rivers to not need one. The town, I thought then, would most definitely be under water. And it was.

I remembered also that our neighbours did have a boat. There was quite a distance between one house and the next in areas such as these, where people grew and prospered as servants of the land. They had a boat. They could have used that…but how much help would that have been in the rain?

But the rain had stopped now. Perhaps relief workers would be on their way. Perhaps even now, the water was starting to recede…but it didn't seem that way. If it hadn't been for the roar of the helicopter that reached our ears as the last pillow forgot the taste of air, choppers echoing across the water…well, who knows what would have happened. Nihar had left the prospect of missing school. It was too small a comfort to hold on to. Anika wasn't letting go of Shashi now. It was like her mother was a lifeline to her. I don't remember my days of being that age. Perhaps Shashi was a lifeline to her five year old mind.

She continued to cling as Shashi pried the wooden window open with the pole we used to keep it as such. It was heavier than usual, probably because of the battlement of rain that had assaulted it, but it had dried somewhat. The worst was trying to pry it open without breaking it; the wood had severely weakened over the duration of sun and rain, although if worst came to worst, we could just batter it into the flood below, although that would make getting out a tad more difficult. She got it open though.

I poked my head through the man-sized gap. The helicopter was still some ways away. Trees poked out, far fewer than we were used to, and even then, only their weaker tips were visible amongst the spread of brown. My chin, I realised as I made to draw my head back in, was barely afew inches from the surface. In a matter of hours, if not a single one, water would pour in from the kitchen window. Perhaps it already was.

And then the door burst inwards. Later, we saw it hadn't actually burst, but rather the weaker part of several panels had splintered, letting water gush through as opposed to trickling between cracks. But no-one thought of the possibility when death started screaming all that faster.

It was almost funny. The hysterical sort of funny that is. I'd never imagined drowning as the thing that could wind up ending my life. Just as I hadn't ever imagined myself being crushed in the debris of a hurricane blowing through our village or our farm or our little house up on its four posts, or burning with the sugar cane as we cleared the way for the next season's crop. It was just one of those things that was all too common.

But the water was streaming into the house with a vengeance. We were suddenly coated with mud as the new water slammed into the old with a force enough to cause it to splash. Anika screamed and pulled hard enough with clenched fists to yank a few greying hairs off her mother's head…but no-one was laughing. Not how we used to chortle every time we spotted a grey hair…unless it was on my head of course. Then they laughed at my obvious aging.

Nihar clung to my leg, shaking his wet hair with more fear than irritation. 'What happens if the helicopter doesn't see us?' he asked. 'Will we be trapped in here?'

'Don't say things like that,' Shashi scolded as Anika burst into uncontrollable sobs, before looking up. Our eyes met for a fraction of a second. Nihar was right. They wouldn't be looking into windows of half-drowned houses.

'I'll go onto the roof,' I decided.

But it proved to be far easier said than done. The window was, firstly, at an annoying height. Anika's head still fell short of it. Manoeuvring onto the frame proved to be tricky, even with the elevation of the bed, but that wasn't the main problem. Once I'd manage to get a good leverage, I realised I was simply too big to manage the crawl onto the roof without some help. It was built in a way that only a small lithe body could manage to climb without human assistance.

Now, if we had the ladder…or a conveniently placed tree, or were even on the other side of the house…but we couldn't risk opening the lower windows. We'd be under our heads in water. Literally.

I shook my head at Shashi and turned to my son, inwardly cursing the person who had originally built the house. Undoubtedly, they hadn't had wall scaling without any equipment, whether actual or improvised, in mind.

Her brown eyes widened and she shook her head, Anika still clinging tightly to her. The black braids whipped to and fro, held down by the extra weight they carried and glistening with moist mud.

'No,' she snapped, a hint of anger in her voice, although fear and worry was at the forefront.

'I can't get up there and neither can you,' I replied wearily, mentally drained. Physically, I was mostly fine. We hadn't done anything after all. No hoeing through baked soil. No hacking at persistent weeds.

Nihar looked between us, quickly getting the message. 'No problem,' he said quickly. 'I can do it.'

Shashi rounded on him. 'You will do no such thing,' she said strictly. 'I won't have you-'

Then Nihar looked at her, and whatever passed between the two made her face crumble.

'I have to,' he pointed out, rather reasonably too. 'Mum, you couldn't get up there, and I wouldn't be much of a man if I let you anyway, especially when Dad can't even fit through the window-frame properly.'

I would have been able to, mind you, if there had been ground to clamber on to under the sill. Stepping into the bottom of a sea you knew barely anything of wasn't the wisest of moves…not that it would have helped our situation by any degree.

He was still pale, but there was no hint of tremor in his voice. He knew someone had to get up there, elsewise the helicopter would pass right above us. Perhaps the level would recede before it went over our heads, but could we really have afforded to take that chance? Anika's world was still black and white, but Nihar was old enough to understand a little more deeply. And he could climb. He could swim. Those were the important things. Not: he could slip. He could fall. Because he could do those as well.

I was afraid too. But I was also proud of him, the son I had helped raise.

Shashi let it go after a moment, blinking back unshed tears. Let him go. She didn't have much of a choice, despite how reluctant she was. The look she gave me immediately following though was reminiscent of a wild boar. A mother protecting her cubs. I probably withered a little. I'm not entirely sure. It wasn't like I was at the luxury to look into a mirror at the precise moment. But I do know we all held our breaths, even the dog with its tail lying flat, as we watched our son, Anika's brother, worm his way onto the roof.

It was only a minute, two at most, but it felt like eternity. It was only water. It wasn't like there was a pot of molten lava beneath his feet as he scrambled up the, now somewhat dry, wooden planks onto the tin roof. We couldn't see him; the layer formed by debris and mud was too thick to spy a reflection. But it was so easy to imagine him falling, slipping…and then washing away with the tide, or sinking under with the burden of baggage or by sheer weariness. Just like who knew how many more people. And we'd all be stuck here, watching him drift out of our lives forever as the water caved in over our own heads, building a rocky tomb over our lives.

But then there was the sound of triumph on the roof, and I swore at that moment to myself that I would never again begrudge him for climbing up the palm trees when he was supposed to be doing his homework. Then I put my head back on and grabbed the nearest colourful thing I could find as Nihar began screaming, and presumably by the pattering sounds on the tin roof, dancing about, waving his arms.

'Stop that,' Shashi scolded, taking her dress from me and passing it up. She was slimmer than me, if a little shorter, so she was able to reach farther up. I took Anika from her with a bit of difficulty; she didn't want to let go of her mother, and understandably so. But she was clinging to me soon enough, listening fearfully, though a grin formed on her face as she first heard the sounds of her brother jumping about and screaming.

'That's my brother.' She sounded a little sleepy too. Her toes hovered about an inch from the surface of the water, and the helicopter's blades sounded slightly nearer.

Nihar heard his mother, and the thudding about stopped, though we could still hear his voice, as well as a soft flapping that was soon swallowed by the engine as the helicopter came even nearer. A rope-ladder dangled from it, along with a man in an orange that could be seen from any distance that the rope itself could be made out from, clinging and ready to drop down and pull someone from the jaws of death. Higher up, I could just make out the forms of faceless people in the helicopter, no doubt clutching themselves and each other in relief.

It lowered just beside the roof so the end of the ladder, and the man, were outside our window. We tried to get Anika out first, but she had found a new lifeline, so Shashi went, the rescuer helping her up a few rungs where she reached for Nihar, and then we went together.

Anika clung tightly to my hair. 'What about Doggy?' she asked.

Dogs could swim, but they couldn't climb ladders. Not ladders that hung in mid-air anyway. Not ours. And he was too big to drag up. He couldn't grip like Anika could.

'We have a harness,' the rescuer said, overhearing as he helped us out. 'I'll go fetch it.'

Anika transferred her hug to the dog as he was finally pulled into the cramped space. Some people looked irritated, and perhaps rightly so. But he was a part of our family too. No doubt the grudges would turn elsewhere. To the government, Mother Nature herself…

The helicopter rose higher again, heading towards a rendezvous point. I wondered if the usual emergency centre had survived, or if it was also under water like almost everything else. Everything was a blanket of brown, except for a few trees poking their heads through a canopy, a few rooftops still visible, gleaming almost mockingly in the sun…and the debris that floated at the surface of what was supposed to be a mercy from the gods: an indistinguishable mess of splintered wood, man-made instrument and corpses carved by nature's will.

A/N: I live in a metropolitan area, but I have lived for a time in areas that are prone to constant flooding, as often as once or twice a year. That being said, I've also never actually lived through a flood (excluding a flash flooding, and I was on a bus during the time, not a house), but I've heard of the after-effects from relatives and friends as well as on the news. Typically the water never reached higher than the poles of an elevated house. But I couldn't well ask what they felt or how it was when it did. That would have been rather tactless. So that part's waving at the air a bit, however when the riverbanks break, the water levels rise really fast. And they keep rising even after the rain stops. I checked the facts; is plausible at the very least.

Cyclones/hurricanes also sometimes follow the tropical island scenes. There was one a few weeks ago in Fiji. That was actually what prompted me to write this fic. A lot of Australians were hurriedly evacuated during holiday season before the cyclone's projected hit. To my knowledge it died before it reached the main islands though.

Thanks for reading. Hope you enjoyed.