collecting stormwater for the withering drought

First published in Light Borrowers (2018).

collecting stormwater for the withering drought

I.

You find it completely by accident. 

The sky has turned pale without the sun to warm her, face split open as she bawls thunderous cries. The clouds surround her in sympathy, dripping misery on her behalf. 

You close your eyes and turn your face towards them, letting their grief wet your skin and seep into your pores. The cool relief on your swollen eyelids and throbbing heart is a fleeting, though cherished, reprieve. You stand there so long the chill takes shelter in your body. A small hand clutches at the inner lining of your coat, questioning.

We’ll be okay, you think. If you think it hard enough, it will be true. 

The cafés are full of people like you – dripping rainwater, seeking refuge. You carry on, despite the weight of your coat on your shoulders getting heavier with every drop of stormwater you carry with you. The struggle is a strain on your tired bones but the perseverance will make your muscles stronger. 

The cracks in the concrete catch your sight while you’re looking down. Weeds burst from them like drowning arms reaching for the sky from underwater, and like a child, you’re enchanted. 

The cracks are arrows, leading you off the high street, down alleyways. They grow bigger the further you go, until the spaces are so wide, entire bushes burst from them, until there is more crack than cement. The path has been hacked away, unruly grass and weeds dancing in the rain. 

Upon the green is someone in pink and yellow, bent over tending to a deep ceramic dish, pushed up against the brick of the alleyway. The dish is filled with varying degrees of green and turquoise. Cactuses. 

The stranger’s eyes meet yours just as they heft the bowl off the ground. An entire city of flora buildings, resting on a pebble planet, is held under one arm. It must be heavy, carrying the weight of a world, but the stranger shows no sign of strain.

“Sorry, we’re closed today,” the stranger says. “I was just bringing these babies in from the rain. We’ll be open tomorrow.”

The sign above the doorway reads Hibiscuits – worn but beautiful, purposefully made to look decayed. 

How lovely it must be, to find the confidence to be decidedly imperfect.

“You’re soaking wet,” the stranger says, as though you weren’t aware. “You’ll catch a cold if you stay out in the rain.”

“We’ll be okay,” you say. “We’ll find somewhere to dry off.”

A pause.

“We?” 

You hunch over before you let your coat part. Fingers dig into your knees as cold trickles into the protective cocoon you’ve been carrying around in the rain.

“Oh,” the stranger says. 

That was the sound you made too, when you discovered her existence.

 

She’s mostly dry, socks damp from the unavoidable puddles. You, however, drip steadily onto the floorboards until your coat is tugged off your stiff shoulders and a towel pressed into your hand. The stranger hangs your coat up to dry and pulls two chairs down from a table to sit on. If you weren’t so numb from the cold, the kindness might hurt.

The tea warms you from the inside out. Sensation returns to your limbs after the second sip. It’s like magic.

“Hibiscus tea,” the stranger smiles, refilling your teacup with a swirl of their finger. “It has healing properties.”

The child on your lap wriggles in excitement, brown eyes wide and expressive in a way you’ve never seen them.

It is magic.

 

The next time, you find it because you are looking for it.

The sky blushes amber and blue in the mid-afternoon. The ceramic bowl is back by the door – a solid weight to keep it ajar. The cafe glows golden, curtains drawn open to let the sun illuminate the space. There are customers too, in armchairs with books, drinks, plants and magic. Pages turn, teaspoons twirl, soil is sifted, all without a finger lifted. It’s a completely different world to the one you know.

“Hey, you’re back,” calls a familiar voice. They’re in purple shorts this time, the colour of violets. Somehow, their face looks different too, and it takes you a moment to register it’s the lack of lipstick, the plush of their bottom lip pale and dry. Somehow, their smile has colour all the same.

“Liked the tea?” they ask, waving a ladybug from their hair. “Or did you come here to see me?”

 You blink your eyes up to meet their gaze. You’ve been caught staring. Short arms squeeze your leg like vines. You sigh, thread your hands through angel hair. “We’ve been here before, darling.” 

“Aw, shucks, Rosie, you don’t remember me?” They have to squat to be at eye-level with her.

Rosie turns her face into your trousers, unused to the attention. You get to your knees, pushing her inky black hair out of her face and smiling at her ruddy cheeks. She’s kept her face on all day and you are so proud. 

“You remember Jas, don’t you?”

Jas’s eyes light up, like their name is a candle and you are fire. They reach behind your ear, tracing the shape with a finger before pulling away, a blossom in hand. They create beauty out of thin air and you are left breathless. 

“You wouldn’t forget me, would you?” They catch your gaze, holding the blossom flat on their palm.

Rosie lets go of your shoulder to move closer, chubby hand reaching for the offered flower with hesitation. She glances at you, uncertain. 

You nod. This is safe. This will be fine.

Rosie takes the gift into her hand, careful not to crush its delicate pink petals with her pudgy fingers.

“I’m glad you came back,” Jas says, voice soft. 

You’re glad too.

 

II.

The special today is chrysanthemum tea. Jas brings it to you in a glass teapot, wisps curling out the spout. There’s a mug of hot chocolate with a straw in it for Rosie, who looks to you, expectant. Dutifully, you press your wrist to the outside of the mug.

“Is it too hot for her?” Jas asks, touching a finger to the rim. A cube of ice bobs to the surface. The magic has Rosie reaching for the mug with enthusiasm. 

“Wait —” The ice hasn’t had a chance to thaw and the drink is still hot. Jas must realise this too because three pairs of hands grab at the mug, sending hot chocolate all over the table.

“Oh, shit,” Jas says. They clap a hand over their mouth. “Sugar. Sorry!”

You stare, chest fluttering as you take in the panic on their features. You can’t help the wave of giddiness that crashes against your abdomen, giggles bubbling into your mouth like sea foam. It’s been so long since you last laughed, you thought maybe you’d forgotten how. 

“Don’t worry,” you manage, finding your breath. 

When Jas returns with a new drink, Rosie waits once more for your signal to drink. This time, she’s more careful.

“So, I was wondering,” Jas starts, clearing their throat, “If you wanted to get something to eat later. Be a while till closing though.”

“I can wait,” you say. Their eyebrows raise and you feel a blush bloom. “Answered too quickly, didn’t I?”

“I didn’t expect you to say yes.” 

“Really?” 

“Hoped you would, but ‘hoping for the best, expecting the worst’, that kinda thing.”

“It was brave to ask, if that’s the case.”

“I’ve been practicing in front of the mirror for weeks,” they admit. “It’s surprisingly difficult to feign nonchalance.” 

You glance at Rosie, with her button nose and her bottom lip stuck out. It’s been a long time since you’ve practised facial expressions with her in the mirror. 

In that moment, you’re aware of just how many people are in the cafe, how many eyes would notice if Rosie’s features were to slip off her face.

 

Rosie blinks at her bowl of pumpkin soup, sleepy. You would feel guilty if you weren’t so busy being chasing invisible ants from your skin. 

“She’s not on solids yet, huh?” Jas asks, around a bite of pasta. “How old are kids when they get their teeth?” 

I don’t know, you want to say.

Your anxiety is thick enough that you could use it as a blanket to keep yourself warm. You’ve managed to answer most questions with more questions, but it’s hard to keep dodging. You kiss Rosie’s temple, then encourage her to finish her soup; you even pull a straw from your handbag for her to drink it with. She sucks and rubs her eyes. 

“Is she okay?”

“We’ve never been out for this long before,” you say, unable to keep your eyes off Rosie’s. 

“Is something wrong?” Jas asks.

You want to explain it, you really do, but you don’t know how to pour it out a glass at a time.

Jas insists on paying the bill. You protest until you see the amount. You didn’t realise the wine had been so expensive; your tongue was never taught to discriminate between those kinds of tastes.

Outside the restaurant, Rosie wobbles on her feet, yawning and tucking her face into the warmth of your hand. 

 

“I made you uncomfortable,” Jas says, shoulders low.

“I’m not great in busy places. And I don’t feel right not being able to pay my share.”

“I was trying to impress you.”

“You already impress me.” 

Rosie makes a gurgling noise into your hand. You lift her into your arms and tuck her face into your shoulder.

“I want you to like me,” you say. 

“I already like you,” Jas says. “I wouldn’t have asked you on a date if I didn’t.”

“Was this a date?”

They stare at you for a beat, like you’ve just burped bees out your mouth.

“Crap. I didn’t know. Sorry,” you say. “I’ve never been on a date before.”

“Which means, by default, this is both the best and worst date you’ve been on.”

There is an entire constellation behind those twinkling eyes, and you’ve always wanted to learn more about astronomy.

 

“Do you like ice-cream? I have a tub back at the flat.”

 

You feign consideration. “What flavour?”

“Lavender and maple.”

That's not a real flavour, you think. But you falter, unsure. Your hands are full holding Rosie, so Jas places a hand at the small of your back, guiding you through the city streets.

 

The second date is the first time they come over. You make sure the flat is spotless. It isn’t hard – you don’t own many things. 

Jas brings a bottle of wine and jar of tea leaves. They make a crown of flowers for Rosie while you finish cooking, darting glances back at Rosie’s awestruck features every chance you get.

 You can’t shake the trembling nerves, not even after Rosie’s been put to bed, curled up facing the wall, when it’s safe.

 

“I bet her face is the cutest when she sleeps,” Jas says.

Rosie doesn’t wear her face to sleep.

“She’s always the cutest,” you reply. It’s not a lie.

 

Jas tastes like unexpected rain after a familiar drought. You’ve been thirsting, without realising. 

They press a chaste kiss against your bottom lip, and it feels different to the kiss you shared earlier. If the first kiss was hello, this kiss is I’m sorry. 

“I really like this, but…” they lick their lips, nervous.

It’s the first time you’ve seen them so uncertain. You wish you could brush the anxious thoughts off their shoulders like pine needles, sweep them up with a brush and pan, keep them in a matchbox.

“Would you be alright if —”

“Yes,” you interrupt.

They smile, even if the apprehension is still there, in the corner of their eyes.

“I answered too quickly again,” you say, hoping it will earn you a laugh. Jas turns away, licking their lips once more.

 

You know the taste now.

“Would you be alright if we did… just this?” 

The phrasing of the question is important. They say ‘just this’ like this is a part of something bigger – like this is an oar when you are demanding a boat. 

“Of course I would be,” you reply, because you are not demanding a boat. You can swim.

Their expression is dubious. You, too, know what it’s like to doubt; you, too, want to keep the tender parts of yourself close, because of how easily they bruise. 

“How long would you be alright with just this?” they ask. This time, it’s not so much the phrasing of the question that strikes you so much as the tone. There’s no curiosity. 

“Whatever you want to give me is enough,” you promise. 

You wouldn’t even ask just this of them. That they are willing to give just this at all is something you plan to treasure. Just this is more than you could ask for.

The doubt on their face begins to crack, and if you look hard enough, you can make out the slivers of hope desperately trying to escape through the spaces. 

“I wouldn’t ask you for more than you were willing to give,” you say. “Even if you don’t want to give me this, I’ll understand.”

You don’t need a boat. You don’t need an oar. 

“I’m happy just being here with you.” You kiss them until they believe it, until they make vines twist up the bedpost, until orange roses burst from between the floorboards, until there are more butterflies in the room than in your chest.

“Knew you were magic the moment I met you. Don’t know how I got so lucky,” they whisper into your skin, eyes closed, like it’s a secret they’ve been holding dear. It seeps into your pores and you store it in your veins with the stormwater you’ve been collecting. 

Before them there were only desert storms, an aching desolation that tore at your insides like sandpaper against flesh. For the first time in years, there is the promise of life in the spaces between your ribcage, like the seedlings that peek out between the cracks of cement. 

You will water them until they flourish.

 

III.

There is another who can make flowers bloom.

You watch him talk with an air of confidence and certainty you don’t have, about things you’ve never known. You watch him grow tulips with a snap of his fingers, light fires without blinking. 

Jas laughs — the laugh you hear them share with you when you’re at your brightest. You know it’s not a song reserved for only you. You know this.  

You’re not capable of jealousy, but you are well-versed in self-doubt – you have it down to an art. 

Jas introduces him. He’s a regular customer. You shake his hand with your friendliest smile. 

“What’s your name, cutie?” he leans down to ask Rosie. She’s playing with the paper straw in her hot chocolate. There’s nothing threatening about his tone, his voice, his words or his posture.

Rosie blinks up from her drink and stares at him, before letting her nose and mouth melt from her features, until her face is an empty slate, skin and hair on a head with no face.

He jerks back in shock, but no one is more shocked than you.

Rosie!” you gasp, grabbing her. Your head whips around to check if anyone saw and you pull her hood up. Luckily, the the cafe is empty.

“You let yokai in here?” he asks Jas, outraged. 

You pull Rosie closer, push her faceless head into your chest.

“What?” Jas says, confused. “Rosie’s non-magical.” They look to you for confirmation, but you don’t get a chance to speak.

“That’s a noppera-bo,” the man spits, pointing. “It’s a no-face monster.” He hasn’t looked away from Rosie and you hate it, hate the way he’s looking at her. No one has the right to look at her unless she wants to be seen.

“She’s half human,” you say. “And she has a face.” Even if she doesn’t wear it all the time.

“It has a mask,” he jabs. “One that it puts on to lull you into a false sense of security before it kills you.”

“Rosie would never hurt anyone.”

Rosie lifts her head at the sound of her name, brown eyes peering up at you. She looks just like any other human child, even if it is a disguise she wears to keep herself safe. 

You remember the first time her face slipped off in a crowd, a blankness as familiar to you as the smooth back of your hand. It’s just how she is. But it’s strange to strangers, and the screams only spooked Rosie further, made it harder for her to force a face.

She is not lacking, you wanted to explain. She is what she is. But there was no point then, and there is none now.

“Those things are dangerous, Jas,” the man says. “This is supposed to be a safe space for magical folk. You can’t let demons in here.”

Your fight has left you, weariness stinging at your eyes, grief overflowing. You’ve exhausted your words and there’s nothing left. Maybe this is how Rosie feels after a day of pretending.

“Are you its maker?” the man asks, like he has any right. “Did you – Did that thing come from you?”

You don’t have to answer him, but you want to say yes, out of spite. It shouldn’t matter where she came from. Why does he care how she came to be?

“I think you should leave,” Jas says.

Despair gushes through your stomach and churns in your gut.

“I’m talking to you,” Jas say to the man, arms crossed. “This is supposed to be a safe space for everyone. You’re going to have to find a different garden centre. There’s an apothecary on the main road you can try.”

You’re too busy dripping onto Rosie’s hood to hear if he argues. Rosie peeks up at you, her perfect little face furrowed in worry. She splays a tiny hand against your wet cheek, questioning. You try to smile, to reassure her, but the expression crumbles and you press your face into the soft hair on her head, desperately trying to catch your breath, calm the torrents in your veins.

“I’m so sorry about that,” comes Jas’s voice, hand touching your shoulder. “He shouldn’t have said what he did.”

You don’t know what to say, where to start. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I’m sorry I caused trouble for your business. I’m sorry for losing you a customer.

“I’m sorry,” you say, voice wet with saltwater.

“There’s nothing to be sorry for, love.”

You disagree. It feels like there is always something to be sorry for.

 

Jas gets to their knees, rubs your shoulder comfortingly and it makes you want to cry harder. 

“I didn’t know how to tell you,” you whisper. It’s a poor excuse, even to your ears. It would’ve been easy: Rosie is a noppera-bo. Rosie is half demon.

“You didn’t have to tell me,” Jas says. “You don’t owe me anything.”

“I owed you this, at least.”

“No,” they insist, squeezing your arm. “This was yours to keep and it was taken without permission.

Rosie wriggles in your grasp, overheated.

You watch two ladybugs crawl along the chair rail towards one another, their collision inevitable. The moment they meet, one spreads it wings and takes flight.

 

The next time the cafe closes for the day, Jas drives you both out into the suburbs to visit one of their clients. Though the trip isn’t long, it’s Rosie’s first time in a car. You sit with her on your lap in the back, listening to Jas chat over the music. 

When you arrive, you’re greeted by a plump older woman called Marla, who gives you a paper bag full of jams and chutneys. Rosie watches her blow smoke-rings like it’s magic; in a way, it is. 

The backyard is home for grand oak trees, their thick branches creating canopies to filter the sunlight. There is one tree, on the edge, that looks significantly less majestic than the others; branches droop, its trunk bleeds brown rot.

“The neighbours have been poisoning the trees to clear the view, raise the value of their houses,” Jas says.

“That’s awful.”

“Humans can be cruel,” Jas shrugs. You’ve learned this lesson too, so you’re not quite sure why it still surprises you.

Jas presses a palm flat against the trunk and close their eyes, eyebrows furrowing.

“Sometimes you can sever the rotting branches, cut away the worst parts of the infection and treat it as best you can, hope it has enough strength to heal,” Jas says, staring up at the leafless branches, stained dark from disease. “This one is too far gone. Would be better to let it go. Ah, Marla’s gonna be devastated.” 

“Shouldn’t we try to save it anyway?” you ask, grabbing at Jas’s sleeve. “Is there no chance at all?”

Jas’s gaze flickers across your face, searching, like you are a map and they have lost their way. Slowly, their lips curl into a smile, your favourite smile – the one full of colour with or without lipstick. 

When you return inside, you find Rosie petting a black cat, while Marla blows smoke-rings without taking a drag.

 

IV.

It’s summer and the garden is abundant with colour. You’re offering your services as taste-tester for Jas’s experimental recipes. The whole cafe is filled with the spiciness of ginger and sweetness of marigold.

Rosie manages a bite of a cookie before pushing it away. You laugh and give her a cup of cookie dough to eat with a spoon. It doesn’t take her long to deem that too, a difficult chore, and wander off to play.

“I’m thinking of serving the biscuits as a set with the milkshake, since they’re not very sweet.” Jas pours you a cup of tea. “And with the new tea, a slice of cake at half price, maybe?”

The tea scalds your tongue. It shows on your face because Jas starts.

“Too hot? Sorry, I’m rubbish at temperature stuff.”

It’s nothing to worry about. Your cells are constantly regenerating and your tongue will heal. In a day or two, you’ll be as good as new. 

You tell them as much, and they smile, charmed, as though you’ve said, I can be magic too.

“Hey,” Jas says, getting out of their seat. “I want to show you something.”

Out in the courtyard, the picnic bench is warm from the sun. A glass terrarium sits in the middle, glass walls speckled with stars made of dirt, booming with viridescent turquoise and amethyst. 

They reach a hand into the glass planet and sever a fleshy leaf from a pale plant. “Succulent propagation,” they say, showing you the watery wound where the leaf once connected to the mother plant. “Summer is the best time for it.”

They pick a chipped teacup from the pile on the floor and use it to scoop soil from the sack against the wall. You watch them sit the leaf on the soil before placing the teacup on the windowsill with others already there. A few have paper cocktail umbrellas sticking out of the soil, as though they need protection from the rain.

“Most succulents die from overwatering,” they explain, holding another succulent cutting up against the light. When placed in your hand, you can make out where the leaf was severed from the plant. The wound has healed. Tiny roots curl out from the base like baby hairs. “You have to love them, but you can’t flood them with attention, y’know?”

You nod, watching Jas lay the leaf back on its bed of soil. 

“They’ll drown if you don’t give them room to grow.” 

The teacup returns to the windowsill where the leaf can soak up the sunshine. It will be weeks – months, likely – before it becomes its own. 

“It must take a lot of care and patience,” you say.

“Most things do.”

You glance through the window at Rosie playing with the flower trough inside, before lifting yourself onto your toes and pressing a kiss against chapped lips. They part easily to let you in, mouth warm and sweet.

When you return inside, the tea on the table has turned lukewarm. Jas touches a finger to your cup, the liquid quivering. A ribbon of steam shivers from the surface.

“Why don’t you just use magic?” you ask. “With the succulent trimmings, I mean.” 

“I like it better this way,” Jas replies. “Sometimes it’s nice to let things be. It’s a change, discovering what something chooses to be, instead of making it into what I want.”

 Rosie has found an earthworm in her pile of soil and is watching it wriggle with wide-eyed wonder. 

 

The debut of the summer menu doesn’t go as well as hoped, but Jas is still full of sunshine. 

You’re on one of the cosy couches under the courtyard awning, feet kicked up on the table, sore from bustling around waiting on customers all day. Rosie has no such issues, having played with bugs in the garden for the better part of the morning before taking a nap upstairs by the window in the afternoon sun.

It’s too dark to see bugs now, so Rosie’s bored. She keeps patting Jas’s hand like it will help plants sprout spontaneously. Like magic is a button that can be pushed with a finger. 

“It doesn’t work like that, Rosie,” Jas laughs. “Plus, I’m a little dehydrated. Pass me the water.”

You hand them a glass of water, watching their throat move as they swallow. They catch you staring and your cheeks heat. This is still new to you. 

Their smile says they don’t mind.

Rosie glances between the both of you, trying to hear the unspoken conversation, before deciding she doesn’t care. She puts her tiny hand back onto Jas’s, glaring at it in concentration. When Jas sticks out their tongue, Rosie erases the eyes and nose from her face, letting a long tongue dangle out of a gaping mouth with no teeth. 

Before you have a chance to scold her, Jas cackles with laughter, slapping a hand on the table. “Oh my god!”

Features restored, Rosie turns to you, looking a little smug.

“Okay, okay.” Jas presses a kiss against the crown of Rosie’s head and leans forward. “I’ll tell you a secret.”

You watch Jas dig their hand into their pocket, returning with a single seed between their fingers. It’s so tiny you’d miss it if you weren’t looking for it.

“It hurts to build something out of nothing.” Jas splays their hand open, clasping the single seed inside the valley between their fingers. They turn their empty palm over, glancing up at you with a smile. “It’s much easier to encourage what already exists.”

The words echo in your chest, like they’ve been shouted in a cave. The smallest purple floret sprouts from where the seed is hidden. Rosie’s eyes are just as wide as yours. 

Jas presses the flower into Rosie’s hand, covering it with their own. When their hand pulls away, Rosie shows you a sprig of lavender, her face bright with delight.

You exhale a breath you’ve been keeping for too long. Relief washes over you, cleansing you of the self-doubt you’d kept smudged on the inside of your skin. 

“You okay?” Jas asks, cocking their head.

You nod, because you are. 

 

V. 

The sky pours buckets, threatening to drown everything in the café’s garden. You laugh as the rain plasters your hair to your face, the three of you hurrying to cover the more sensitive plants with plastic cloches. 

Jas dries your clothes with magic and towels your hair by hand, pressing a kiss to your nose. You try not to giggle and fail. It is the most wonderful failure imaginable.

“I met you on a day like today,” Jas says, as though it’s a memory from long ago when you can count the months on your hands. “I only meant to pop outside for a second to bring the babies in from the rain. Had no idea I’d be adopting the two of you.”

You give Rosie an umbrella to hold while she explores the garden. She’s in a sun hat too big for her head and the poppy red gardening boots Jas bought her for her birthday. She’s so busy staring at the cat doodle on the inside of the umbrella that she accidentally steps into a puddle. Her nose wrinkles and her next steps are much more careful.

 

“If you were a plant,” you say, “what plant you would be?”

“Is this like the ‘if you could be any animal, what animal would you be?’ hypothetical?”

“No, it’s more… what plant are you most like?”

“People aren’t like plants,” Jas says. “People are complicated. Plants are easy.” 

“They’re easy to you, maybe. They’re both equally complicated to me.”

“I like to think I’m pretty easy,” Jas replies, watching Rosie. 

Head tilted towards the sky, Rosie wears a confused expression, as though wondering why the clouds are crying. She leans back a tad too far and a raindrop drips from the umbrella onto her nose. She sneezes and her features disappear for a moment before reappearing. 

“That is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” Jas whispers. 

You don’t think it’s possible to be happier than you are now, but Jas has a habit of making the impossible possible.

“You know —” 

“No.”

“What? You didn’t let me finish.” 

“All your ‘you know’s are followed by bad ideas,” you say. “We almost died once.”

“This is nothing like that. I was gonna say, I think it’s time we taught Rosie the joys of puddle-jumping.” 

“I just dried off.”

“I’ll dry you off again after,” Jas says, holding out a hand.

Their smile is the colour of autumn, when the leaves change and the trees shed their coats, preparing to start again.

You take it.