A man knelt in a dry field. He picked up a handful of soil, accused it, then crumbled it. Bone dry, the dirt argued little before brittle clods dissolved into fine dust. The man stood, brushed his hands together, and gazed out at the bright field. Its far edge shimmered. Parallel rows of stunted plants converged toward a line of trees. A water tower glared above the trees, the last half of a town’s name legible in big block letters. The man squinted at the silver globe, then turned his back on the tower, the town, the field, and the empty sky, and walked toward his house.
The man crossed his yard and mounted concrete steps to the porch where he settled himself to wait for the heat to subside. Its full tide lapped the motionless limbs of trees that shaded the yard and the house. The tide inundated the house as well. Doors and windows stood open, an invitation to any breeze that might abate the flood. No breeze came, and in still rooms the heat settled into stagnant pools.
* * *
As the sun set, shadows crept out to fill the void left by departing light. The shadows met in open places, mingled and conspired in twilight, then grew strong. The intensity of the heat ebbed with the light, but a thermal essence remained.
In deepening darkness the voices of the night grew bold. Soon they talked among themselves, confident and open. They spoke in the insect dialects of timeless tongues, and they recounted ancient stories of summer and of drought; of patience; of the role of extremes in the maintenance of averages. The voices talked at length, and the man, sitting on his porch in the warm darkness, listened for some mention of rain.
* * *
Heat slept in utter stillness, motionless like a calm sea. It stirred in the early hours to welcome pink and orange light. A spring tide drawing strength from the sun, it surged into breaking day and swept across the land. It flowed once again under trees and through open windows and woke the man and his wife. When the spreading heat reached the limits afforded by the contours of land and air, it began to grow deep. The man rose and waded into another day.
* * *
By mid‑morning the sun became unbearable. The man closed the hood of his truck and took off his cap. Sweat stung the corners of his eyes, causing him to squint harder as he stared out at the bright field and its rows of fading plants. Beyond the field the town’s water tower stood above the trees, but the silver seemed grayer than the day before, the glare disperse, subtle. The man studied the scene for a moment, replaced his cap, and walked toward the house.
As he climbed the steps to the front porch the man heard his wife inside the house. She emerged from relative darkness as he opened the screen door. They faced each other across the porch. “Thought I’d do some shelling,” she said. She moved to her chair. “Want to sit out here a while?”
“Yeah, it’s too hot already,” he said, settling into his own seat. “I’ll get back to the truck when the sun ain’t on it.”
His wife placed a paper bag full of beans beside her rocker, set a bowl and an empty bag in the seat, and turned to go back inside. “How about some tea?”
“That would hit the spot,” he said, twisting to hang his hat on the stanchion of his chair. His wife disappeared into the house and the man listened to the sounds she made. The refrigerator door opened, ice cubes cracked from their trays and clinked into glasses, then cracked again as tea poured over them. A knife snapped twice on the cutting block to cut two pieces of lemon. The refrigerator door opened again and the pitcher of tea and the lemon returned to the their cool asylum. The man looked up when his wife stepped out onto the porch. She handed him one glass and set another on the table between them. She sat down and arranged her work in her lap.
The tea tasted good and strong and smelled crisp and lemony. The man took a long swallow, then balanced his glass on the arm of his chair. Already the cold glass dripped with sweat. Condensation ran down onto the man’s fingers.
“Another hot one,” observed the woman.
“Yep. Today’s another scorcher.”
“Seems muggy, too,” she added. “That makes it worse.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “I just wish some of the mugginess would decide to cloud up and give us some rain.”
“Think it will?” Her nimble hands shelled beans into the bowl and discarded empty shells into the paper bag.
“Hard to tell.” He rattled ice in the wet glass and took another swallow. “If it stays muggy it’ll probably come up a cloud somewhere this afternoon or tomorrow, but there’s no telling.”
The paper bag sounded dull crumps in a slow rhythm as the woman tossed aside the byproduct of her work. The man rocked to the cadence and stared out across the yard to the road and the field that lay on the other side. Like his own, the field held rows of stunted plants running in staccato lines to a tree line in the distance. Beyond the far trees the brightness hazed and spread up to curve back on the sky. The haze formed a ceiling, creating a claustrophobic dome in which to endure the suffocating heat and humidity.
Spiteful moisture hung in the air beneath the haze. It increased the unease of the man and his wife but not their hopes. Only clouds could increase hope, but the suspended moisture refused to condense into anything other than discomfort. The clouds for which the man and woman prayed condensed only in the landscape of their minds, where cool water redeemed fields desecrated by drought.
In the fields, heat distilled hope from ambitious plants. On the porch, it smoldered under the man’s own reserves of optimism. His dwindling hope for a harvest evaporated in increments as each dry day followed the next in unbroken succession. As the air grew humid almost too late for rain to be of any help, the man felt desperation where he had once felt promise. Now that clouds might form from moisture that seemed indifferent and unconcerned, the man found himself powerless to hasten their organization and incapable of tapping their wealth. All he could do was go through the motions of working a farm, and when it got too hot for that he could only sit on his porch and watch the hazy sky. He sat and he watched, and he tried to remember how it had felt to be confident.
Through the humid air the woman sensed her husband’s anxiety. She appraised the look on his face as one of vulnerability. She tried to think of what to say as she continued to shell butterbeans from their pods, the beans falling in soft beats into the bowl in her lap. Discarded pods continued their cadence into the attendant paper bag, but the man no longer rocked to the rhythm. The woman tried to encourage his hopes. “I believe we might get a shower if it stays humid like this,” she said. She glanced at her husband to gauge his reaction.
“I don’t know,” he said, wary. “I just don’t know.” He lifted his glass and drank the watery remains of tea and melting ice, then crunched a diminished cube. The coolness of the broken ice on his tongue felt good. It soothed his pessimism. While he would not risk hope, he prayed that his wife might be right.
* * *
Breath, and music. The sound of his wife’s breathing and the song of nocturnal insects reached into the man’s sleep and pulled him to consciousness. He lay without a sheet over him and thought of himself and his wife, exposed, dependent on the night for comfort. And on the day for light, the season for a crop. Dependence stood in the room with them, haunting the night, and the man felt helpless lying in the dark.
A light sweat, a mere sheen of moisture, covered the man. Despite the heat he shivered as a breeze passed through the room. He reached down and pulled the sheet up to protect himself and his wife from the caprice of night air. A softer but fuller breeze followed the first, inflating sheer curtains like sails. The man wondered where the night would take him. He drifted to join his wife.
* * *
The man rose before the sun and ate a hurried breakfast so he could work before the day grew too hot. He walked out onto the porch, out the screen door and down the few steps to the yard, crossing toward his truck as he set about the work of tending his dying farm.
Heat washed over the land. The ground grew hot; the air, stifling. By mid‑morning the man retired to his porch. He sat as on the previous day and the day before that and he watched the trees shine their brittle, defiant green in the still air. Cicadas buzzed in one tree and then another, singly, not like the choruses of the night. The man listened and watched, and he realized that he was waiting.
The drone of insects caused the man to doze. He sat waking and dozing and sweating into the early afternoon. His wife came out to call him to lunch but decided not to wake him. Instead she took a seat. She looked at her husband, his sleeping head bent forward, then out at the field across the road and the sky above the field, and she rested her gaze on a cloud. The woman watched the cloud, praying it would come their way. Or pass before her husband woke.
A shadow drifted across the far trees and onto the field. It came across the road to meet tree shadows in the yard. The silent lap of shadow on shadow startled the insects. They stopped their songs. In the sudden quiet the man awoke, puzzled at the silence and the field beyond that no longer blared its midday glare. He stared at the building cloud, then at his wife. She smiled. “It finally looks like we might get some rain.”
The man beheld the towering cloud that had condensed from haze. It floated against a new, deep sky. Hints of darkness touched the cloud down low. Brilliant whiteness thrust upward, billows piled on billows. The air carried the mountain of white as if it had the mass of granite. The mass and its shadow drifted above the man’s house and his field. He rose from his chair and walked to the screen door to watch the cloud.
From across the road came the faint sound of rain. The sound followed the cloud, and the man opened his door to meet the rain as it came into his yard. His wife watched him reach out toward the first few drops. They hesitated at his greeting, then assented and fell harder.
The man left the porch and crossed the yard to where it met his field. He looked up at a blinding white column that towered above a gray base. As the man considered the power and majesty that spoke to him in countless monosyllable raindrops, he closed his eyes. “Lord, I’m standing here on a fine line,” he began. He prayed aloud and the din of the rain increased. The cloud gave forth a downpour, and dry ground darkened with water that washed anxiety from the man and from the earth. The grateful man stood in the downpour with tears indistinguishable from rain on his wet face.