The Minister of Rain
By Gabriel Saul
Beni’s shout roused the children like a siren. Within seconds, as if they had practiced this scenario daily, the children abandoned whatever they were doing and stampeded to the door. Cards were left on tables, orphaned dolls and cars littered the floor, the TV screen flashed with pictures unseen by any eye and the dress up nook’s floor was paved with vibrant dresses, like puddles of colour.
Gadi ran as fast as he could, pushed some of the girls who were dawdling by the door and went outside, where a row of children had already formed along the lawn, their eyes raised to the gray sky. His nostrils widened as the familiar, much pined for scent flooded his senses. Hayoreh. The first rain. He felt a single drop fall on his cheek and then heard the long awaited tapping sound multiplying as more drops fell on the sidewalk and dry leaves scattered on it. Blades of grass jerked and bobbed their heads while the dry leaves bounded on the parched earth. The sky grew darker and Gadi examined the clouds — their gray hue, their size and how far back they stretched into the horizon.
“Now?” Hila asked, drawing her eyes from the sky and looking around at the other children, who looked like a small field of sunflowers pining for the sun.
“Wait a moment,” Gadi said, waiting for the drum of raindrops to become steady on the leaves of the massive ficus tree beyond the sidewalk. He took a deep breath, absorbing every particle of aroma, knowing it would not smell the same until next year. It was a mystery for him how the first rain could awaken so many fragrances that had been dormant throughout the sweltering summer, as if it were the last ingredient in some mad wizard’s potion that brought it to sizzle and change colour.
Even when watering the garden on hot summer days or running among the sprinklers on the kibbutz’s lawns, it never smelled quite like this.
More drops landed on his cheeks and forehead and he looked around at the other kids all glancing at each other, turning their heads in all directions, until they finally all nodded together in agreement. Then like a pack of wolves howling at a full moon, they raised their heads to the sky.
“Harder, Minister of Rain! Harder, Minister of Rain!” they called, repeating the chant over and over in fervour. They raised their tiny voices higher, screaming harder at the end of each word, like the pounding of drums in some primitive rain ritual.
Gadi was straining his own voice, stretching his vocal chords until they burnt and tingled, but he did not stop. The Minister of Rain was listening, he was certain, and the louder he and his friends shouted, the harder the rain would come, and then there would be no more drought and his mother would let him draw a bath and would stop being so sad. He was not sure who exactly the Minister of Rain was, or what government he belonged to, but he knew he was in charge of the rain.
“Harder, Minister of Rain!” he went on, competing with the girls’ high-pitched voices.
Thunder broke in the distance, spreading throughout the sky like the smile on Gadi’s face. The Minister of Rain had heard them. He was listening. The rain began coming down harder and the house mother came out and called them to come back into the children’s house. Slowly, they lowered their heads, detaching their eyes and voices from the gray sky, and began walking back into the house, their clothes and hair soaked and the scent of the first rain following them like a swarm of bees.
Inside the children’s house, they began making plans for the days to come, the days that followed the Yoreh.
“Mushroom Hill!” someone exclaimed.
“Snail Land!” Gadi called, and some voices cheered in agreement.
Winter had begun and with it a promise of new life and new adventures.
“Did you smell the rain today?” Gadi asked Shimshona, handing the goat one of three apples he’d brought with him from the children’s house.
Grandma Tzvia had asked him and Tali to come and help her for a while at the cemetery. On his way there he stopped at the side of the asphalt road, in a spot he and his friends titled “Snail Land.” In winter, if it rained enough, the place crawled with snails, which he and his friends used to collect and keep in glass jars or fish tanks. They then fed them vegetables and colourful papers. They watched later as the colourful excrement hung behind the snails like long tails and then fell and dried into coils. Gadi loved watching how they moseyed along the soil, leaving iridescent trails within their limited world. He watched how they dug holes and laid tiny, round, clear and glistening eggs. Before winter ended, he and his friends would carry the snails, with their eggs and babies back to Snail Land.
That day, Snail Land was desolate. The first rain was probably not heavy enough to wake its inhabitants from their long summer slumber.
Shimshona chewed the apple in its entirety, froth and juice dripping on both sides of her mouth into her white hair.
“It wasn’t very loud,” Gadi explained, handing her the second apple. “But next time we’ll shout even louder. And Yom Kippur is coming soon and I’m sure lots of people are going to ask for more rain.”
Gadi could never really comprehend Yom Kippur. He knew it was the Day of Atonement in which one had to repent for the past year’s sins. Still, every time a fight broke out in the children’s house, one of the house mothers made both of the quarrelling parties apologize to each other, so he did not understand why they had to ask for forgiveness again on a special day. How was someone supposed to keep track of all the people he’d had a fight with anyway? Every time he had upset Tali? He did not like the idea of compiling a list of sins and wrongdoings throughout the year. With all this remembering, it seemed impossible to be able to forgive. And why couldn’t he eat for a whole day? He could never fast for a whole day. The only time he had tried, he’d ended up eating a Timeout bar that he had hidden in his night stand, and Tali called him a cheat.
“I’m going to fast,” Aya told him the day before Yom Kippur. “My parents already registered us to the seudat hamafseket.”
“We never go,” Gadi said solemnly.
The fast-breaking meal, seudat hamafseket, took place in the dining hall, before sunset, which is when Yom Kippur began. Gadi imagined all the people stuffing their mouths with as much food as possible to help them through the day of fasting.
“I’m going to eat a lot and then sleep most of the day. Probably read a whole book as well,” Aya reflected.
“I’ll probably read too,” Gadi said. “And hope they have cartoons on the Middle East channel. Are you going to reflect on your sins? Like write them down and repent for each and every one?” he asked.
“You’re crazy,” she giggled. “No one can do that. That’s what the fasting is for.”
He knew that some people in Israel swung roosters over their heads and even killed them in order to atone for their own sins, which seemed to him a bit stupid and cruel. How could a rooster atone for your sins? It did not commit them. Wasn’t killing an innocent rooster a sin in itself? His teacher had explained that the dead roosters were later given as charity to the needy, so maybe it balanced out. But then again, who would want to eat a rooster infused with someone else’s sins? It probably tasted bitter.
“Behhh,” bleated Shimshona, sticking her tongue towards the third apple in Gadi’s hand.
“You need to apologize to Grandma Tzvia for every time you ran off this year,” he said with a smirk. “And to all the people in the graves for chewing on their flowers.”
He handed her the last apple and heard how its flesh exploded between her crooked teeth.
“Why don’t you come and help me?” he heard Tali calling from somewhere within the cemetery.
“Be a good goat,” he said. “I’m going to help Tali before I have more stuff to apologize for this year.”
He patted the goat’s head and ran along between the graves to where Tali was crouched on the grass, pulling out weeds with her bare hands.
“I was just reminding Shimshona about Yom Kippur,” he said as he knelt by her side.
“Did you tell her about the scapegoat?” Tali asked with a smirk, pushing strands of brown hair from her face with a muddy hand.
“What’s that?” He began weeding some Wandering Jew and tossing it onto the black canvas sheet Tali had spread on the lawn by her side.
“My teacher told us that in the desert, on Yom Kippur, the Israelites used to put all their sins into a goat and then send it off into the open desert.”
“How could they put all their sins in one goat?” Gadi wondered.
“I don’t know. Maybe they just believed they did.”
Gadi wondered if any of the goats had survived. Had they reached some oasis in the desert, coupled and flourished for thousands of years? Were there herds of wild goats, the descendants of these sin-ridden goats, wandering around the desert, carrying all the sins the Israelites had committed in their forty years’ journey?
Maybe the person who had abandoned Shimshona as a kid in the cemetery had done this to atone for his sins? Shimshona did not look like she was carrying anyone’s sins. At least, if that was the case, he could stop worrying about her rightful owner showing up one day and claiming her. No one wanted their old sins back.
He could still smell the first rain in his nostrils and smiled to himself, releasing all thoughts of sins into the cemetery’s green atmosphere. Winter was beautifully green in Israel. Gadi loved how all the colours seemed sharper and brighter when the sky was grey. In summer it was just dry and yellow, sometimes black from bushfires. Everything around seemed thorny and hostile. In winter the mountains were as magical as the cemetery was now. Cyclamens sprouted their coy pink heads in crevices and under rocks, daffodils scented the air, butterflies and bees hovered around daisies and mustard flowers. So much life!
His mother had said that Mexico was green in summertime as well as in winter. “It rains in summer,” she told him. “A lot.”
He was not sure whether she was joking or telling him the truth. “So it rains there in summer and in winter?” he’d asked incredulously.
“So how do the snails know when to come out? It must be very confusing for them,” he mused.
He thought it quite sad for the rain not to be something special, a cause for celebration and prayers, as it was in Israel.
When he and Tali returned home from the cemetery, he stopped behind his house, trying to look at the small nest that was perched on top of the air conditioner in the window. He had taken the step ladder from the house a week ago in order to see the nest up close, and discovered, in its middle, one white egg. His mother had told him never to touch the egg, because if he did so, the bird would never come back to sit on it and keep it warm until it hatched. He tried to see if the egg had hatched but the nest seemed quiet and still. He was not sure whether the birds which had built it were still in Israel, or if the first rain had been their cue to fly away to somewhere dryer and warmer. Maybe to Mexico where it was warm even when it rained. He climbed atop the stone wall which ran along the lawn that stretched behind their house. The little nest seemed empty. Gadi couldn’t see any eggshells strewn among the intertwined twigs. He climbed back down, playing in his head a conversation he had overheard several nights before.
“I have to go,” his mother had said, her voice firmer than he had ever heard it. “It’s been too long.”
“We don’t have enough points,” his father had said. “We’ll have to add money for the children’s tickets. And what will everyone think? They’ll wonder where we get all this money from.”
“I don’t care what people think,” his mother said sharply. “If you don’t want me to ask my mother for the money, I could just fly to Mexico by myself.”
Then Gadi heard the door slam behind her and smelled the smoke of her cigarette.
Now Gadi brushed away the memory of that conversation and went inside. He washed his hands, thinking he might try and fast this year and ask for more rain and for his mother to take him to Mexico with her. Maybe, if he got hungry enough, it would actually work.