This is a smidgen broken off of a story I’m struggling to write. I’ve smoothed some of the edges to make it stand better on its own. Touya and the World will eventually be a novella, perhaps even a fully-formed manuscript. We shall see. I hope you enjoy this preview.
“They’re calling for rain today.”
Father dries a grape carefully with his napkin before eating it. It’s a windless day, so the puddles littering the ground outside are still enough to perfectly trap bits of the morning sky. Touya stares at these azure visitors through the window, ignoring Father’s stare.
Mam pushes the remaining fruit onto Touya’s dish. “Surely he can make the first few lessons?” she prods her husband. “The school’s close; he would make it home before torrents pick up.”
Father scowls. “Way things are it could pour any hour now. A missed lesson can be learned later, but there’s no bringing back a spoilt crop.”
Mam nods, giving Touya’s shoulder a sympathetic squeeze before taking the fruit bowl to wash. “You heard him. It’s the fields for you today, Touya.”
Touya chews his lip. What’s there to say? He skips most of his lessons as it is. What he will miss this morning is the Skin’s valleys; he was supposed to explore them with Olek.
“Don’t sulk, boy.” Father misinterprets his silence as he does most things that aren’t the earth and weather around it. His roughened fingers beat against the table. “Go find yourself some old clothes; today’s work will be mud-ridden.”
“Can Olek help?” Touya asks around the last mouthful of berries. They pop on his tongue, tart against the honey-sweet of the wheat cakes he’d eaten earlier.
Mam shoots Father a look before he can protest. “I’ll ring his family,” she says. “If you change quickly enough, maybe you can meet him in the fields.”
Replacing his plans for exploring valleys with a worm-hunting expedition, Touya grins and hops down from his stool. His bare feed slide on the old wooden floor as he makes for the stairs. There’s an old pair of dungarees he’s been hoping to dirty up and never wear again. Mam’s old galoshes are probably small enough to fit him, too. Changing shouldn’t take long, but his stomach is already flip-flopping with impatience. He has to get out before Father or he won’t be able to play in the puddles!
Earth and grass squelch beneath Mam’s old boots. Touya slides his feet back and forth inside them, giggling when the mud almost pulls his right galosh straight off. It’s hard to run, but Touya tries even if he falls twice. The mess doesn’t bother him; Father said today’d be mud-ridden anyway.
Father’s crops are all up on a hill. Touya wonders how much good that does against the rains. It’s probably better than the valleys, at least. Trudging up the slope, he pauses to look back at the flat yard. So many puddles are shining around the house. There aren’t any on the hillside with him. Father probably knows best after all.
At the top, Touya hunches down to dig in the mud and wait for Olek. The ground is bloated with water, every blade of grass heavy with the droplets. They look like little insects, too fat for legs and shiny all the way through. Enchanted, Touya pops a few with his fingers. He gets bored quickly. How long does it take to run to Olek’s house? Is Olek wearing his mam’s shoes too? Maybe he has to walk.
The Sea that Has no Sand floats above Touya’s head, blocking out the sun. Looking up at the wispy tendrils of trapped sky-water, Touya wonders if the cloud people still go to school on rain days. Are crops in trouble the way they are here on the Skin? When the sun hides at nighttime, Touya knows the air gets colder and the plants all grow dewdrops. They’re smaller than these see-through beads wetting his dungarees, and Father can pick them up with his machines and give them as a drink to the thirsty crop land. Everything needs water to grow, after all.
But what about the cloud people? The sun is always in the sky; it has nowhere to hide from the people living above the Sandless Sea. Do they get dew in the night times? Is there such a thing as night in the sky above the Skin?
Olek is standing a little below the ridge, hands on his knees. He must have been running after all; he’s gasping and red-faced as he grins at Touya.
“Your pop’s coming, Touya! Better look at least a little ready.”
Father’s always frowning, so Touya isn’t really scared of his getting mad. But he stands, stretching his muddy fingers to the sky. He’s been watered too now; he can grow.
“Sorry we couldn’t visit the valley,” he says to Olek.
“What valley?” Olek pretends super well. Touya isn’t so good at it.
“The one we were going to instead of school—”
“Ssh!” Olek looks around. “We should be glad we get to miss school! C’mon, let’s get to working!”
“Why be thankful for the always things?” Touya mutters, but he listens to Olek. Olek’s always been more worried about getting in trouble. That’s probably because his father smiles more. Anger is scarier when you don’t see it all the time. Father can’t even hear them from the bottom of the hill where he’s turning on the whizzers, but Olek is clearly worried he might.
Olek and Touya always miss school. Their parents don’t know, of course. The principal sticks to writing notes about their empty seats. That’s something to be grateful for; if Rector Torrence actually tried ringing their homes, Olek and Touya would be in for it. A lazy teacher is so much better than dewdrops every night.
But Touya has always been taught to be grateful for the dew. Be grateful for the dew; be fearful of the rain. Dew is just enough. Rain is too much.
Father’s work isn’t easy. Touya and Olek tug the stubborn shoots that the whizzers leave behind. Clouds gather across the sky as they sweat and yank and fall backwards with large bulbs in their grimy hands. One bulb is bigger than Touya’s fist, but it takes two to make a full ration of stew. When he rubs the grime away, it looks like the clouds up above: round and the purest pearly white. It hasn’t rained in a while, so the clouds are stretched shiny. They probably don’t smell like the bulb in Touya’s hand, strong enough to sting his eyes but just the right amount of sweet to make his stomach growl. Rector Torrence recently said the clouds are made of minerals and gas the volcanoes are always making down here on The Skin. Even though the cloud people never come down, they couldn’t live in the sky without The Skin and its just-right conditions.
Everyone on The Skin is working crops today. But a good rain will mean rest for the cloud people. Mam’s grandmam lived in the clouds once. She used to tell Touya stories of the long droughts in the sky, the months between the rains. Dew isn’t enough for the clouds like it is down on The Skin. Dew means a drought in the sky. During drought times, cloud people have to go down to the Sandless Sea. Great-grandmam said it took two days just to get there and back, but at least the clouds stayed wet. At least they wouldn’t shrivel and burst, and everyone could keep breathing up there in the sky.
Touya used to think it was luckier to live here on The Skin, even if the rain can ruin everyone’s crops. But Mam says the cloud people have automated their cloud-dousing work now. Life up there would be easier, she complains. Father doesn’t listen. He’ll never leave his crops. Father belongs on The Skin where he can dig his hands into earth and pull them out with his food.
Touya and Olek both like The Skin better too. Maybe Olek wants to visit the cloud cities someday, but Touya knows he’d come back. Life in the sky is limited to the pearly, shining clouds where you can breathe. But The Skin is an endless adventure. It stretches and shifts and breathes. It never runs out of water, filled as it is with lakes and swamps and gushing steam cracks. Sure it doesn’t always feel good to walk on—Mam complains it feels like walking on flesh sometimes down near the valleys, that even the rocks aren’t truly solid. But Touya is in love with The Skin’s strange surface, with its scabby canyons and dark, smelly caves. He loves the mushrooms glowing in the night like stars stuck in the ground. How could flowers the cloud people have be prettier than a night full of fungi?
“Touya! You have to keep digging!”
Touya blinks as Olek jabs him with a dirty elbow. He’s still holding a bulb in each hand, but Olek has a mountain already. Father’s whizzers have stopped, too. Frantically, Touya starts to dig. But there’s nothing beneath the dirt, just bits of broken roots and a worm.
“Gross,” Olek sniggers as Touya pulls the worm out. “Think it was eating your bulbs?”
“Worms only eat dirt,” Touya replies. It’s one of the few lessons he really paid attention to in class. “Then they make dirt out the other end.”
“Super gross.” But Olek’s eyes are shining like the clouds as he takes the squirmy worm.
Touya shrugs. “It’s just like The Skin. Send water to the sky, then drink it back in.”
Before Olek can answer, Father’s bellowing Touya’s name. There are other words, but he’s too far across the fields. Touya only hears one other word:
“Uh-oh,” Olek says. The worm wriggles back into the dirt, and Touya is alone. He knows he should go back too. The ground is rumbling too now, its voice only a little scarier than Father’s on an angry day.
Touya peers down the hill. Father’s in the shed behind the house, locking up his whizzers. He probably won’t look for Touya for another hour. The bulbs need to be washed and hung. Maybe even two hours. There’s so much time to dream and watch the rain fly.
A fat droplet splats on Touya’s elbow. He looks down at the puddle, heart wriggling like the earthworm. Everything is starting now. Thick drops are pulling away from the puddles, slow and sticky for now. Soon they’ll be rushing showers. Touya runs for cover, hopping up on a stone where the rain can’t fly. Just in time, too. The puddles turn to torrents and the muddy ground soon follows. It surrenders its water to the thirsty clouds and deep blue sky. Touya sits surrounded by walls of flying rain, safe on his stone. He pulls out a book, grimed up by an hour of work, and begins to read.