Out back the open plains ran down the hill into miles of corn fields, and the summer sky, bound on each side by the woods and to the west by the high hills, seemed to stretch out wider the further down you looked. The neat, precise rows of corn stalks curved themselves lazily over the small hillocks and bends, like ripples in golden sand dunes. Those skies were spotless, clean and pure and frigid, and only the occasional independent cloud drifted over the western hills on a slow, shrinking retreat into the golden morning sunlight. Whenever their shadow happened to fall over our place, however, father was sure to notice, fetch his rifle, and stalk out back to stare at the offending cloud until it disappeared out of site over the unending corn fields.
I never understood why father did this, but I never questioned it, either. His actions were strange, something we lived with, without thought of a solution, like the wood smoke leaking from the stove or the occasional bird shot bit down upon in a partridge breast.
Ours was a dry land. I had heard that on the other side of the western hills great storms routinely raged, great deluges of whitewater runoff coursed down from the drenched peaks. Sister at night sometimes spoke of running away, and climbing those barren hills. “Just to see lightning,” she’d whisper through the sheet that separated our sleeping areas. “Just one flash.”
I knew I should tell father about her plans to run away, but I never did. And she never ran. And we’d forget and life would go on and the sun would dry our faces as it always did, and the dust of our little yard would rise up, if you stomped hard enough, to create little gray clouds large enough to hide ourselves in.
Then one bright morning a large shadow fell over our house. Father was storming mad. He watched that huge cloud with extra care, his thumbnail slowly picking at the rifle stock as it drifted slowly into the east. Too slow, I heard him grumble more than once.
Sister had gone down to fetch some water from the spring for the chickens, and was just heading back up towards us. “Look!” she said, pointing to the west, “More of them!” There were three more clouds, clawing their way over the western hills, slowly coming our way.
Sister and I had never seen such a sight, and we stood in dumb awe as they drifted closer. Four shadows in one morning! All day we sat in the yard and watched them pass until our eyes burned and we’d drunk all the chicken’s water. Eventually the four hung down low where the corn met the sky in the east, but never disappeared. They sat there, slowly drifting back and forth, obscuring that corner of the wide sky. “No good, no good,” father said.
Next morning they were still there, and there were more. New clouds found their way over the hills and began their long drift down into the corn fields. Father was angry. He took aim with his rifle at an especially pretty white cloud just at the edge of the corn field and fired. At first nothing happened, but then a light rain of water fell onto the border of our land, and the cloud disappeared, as if it had never been.
There were so many new clouds, though. They were piling up against the horizon in the east, bouncing and jostling each other against the horizon. Their great combined shadow crept slowly across the corn fields, climbing ever closer to our home. Darkness climbed the hill toward us. Father took down cloud after cloud, blasting them into hard rain and fine mists. It didn’t seem to matter. The shadows kept coming.
Sister got scared and cried. I was scared too. Father just looked angry. “Dark times coming,” was all he said.