Rain only falls once a year. Each time it does, Masozi and the other children scramble on their hands and knees in the mud, snatching up handfuls of fish as the slick-scaled creatures wriggle up through the ground. The Fishers toss their catch into tight-woven baskets where each fingerling flips and writhes until its life stutters to a halt under a hundred other tiny bodies.
Anyone who has seen enough Rain Days to be a Builder is out beyond the village, molding bricks from the precious mud. The older Fishers—girls with fresh budded breasts and boys with dark-smudged upper lips like Masozi—help the little ones, teaching them to corner their catch under the thatched eaves of mudbrick huts.
Today is Rain Day. None of the villagers knew it when they rolled from their bed mats this morning, but all of them know it now. Clouds roll over the edge of the sky and towards the village, their undersides full as if swollen with child. The adults prepare their brick molds. The children fetch their catch baskets. All stand in the shelter of the doorways, waiting for the clouds to cover the sun and turn the air moist and mineral fresh. Each breath comes quiet and careful, eyes turn to the ground, gazes swing back and forth along the streets as if watching the rick-rock of a baby’s cloth cradle. Everyone wants to see the first raindrop stain the hard-packed dirt. It is said that to see the first drop brings love; to find the first fish brings luck.
Right down to the youngest of Fishers—who wait expectantly next to catch baskets almost as tall as they—the whole village knows the story by heart. The rain fish are a gift from the three moons. Before sun’s anger dried up the oceans, the three sisters of the night sky took the last fish eggs from the seabed. Worried for the people, the moons hid the roe under dry ground where their day brother would not find them.
Ever since, from Masozi’s village to the settlements beneath the Broken Mountains beyond the horizon, the people have relied on the rain fish to survive the longest months of the hot season. When brother sun has burned every blade of green from the savannah and the goats are too poke-ribbed to bear kids or give milk, it is the dried fish that keep the people alive.
This is why each Rain Day, with the smell of wet filling their noses and coating their tongues, every Fisher works to fill their family’s catch baskets, lugging the full vessels straight to the drying sheds. But only on Rain Day. After that, vengeful sun returns to the plain, bloating up the bellies of the dead fish and of any villager who dares eat them.
Masozi waits on the front stoop of his best friend Themba’s hut, beneath the carved mud brick lintel. The village leader, straight-backed even after a lifetime of herding and building, walks up and down the rows of dwellings. She carries a clay jar of thumb-deep water, the liquid thick with silt from the near-empty village well. As she did with each Fisher before them, she pauses in front of Themba and Masozi and proffers the vessel of opaque fluid.
Solemnly, the two friends dip fingertips cross-hatched with basket weaving scars into the bucket. They paint the moisture first over the fish and moon carvings of the doorway, then in a stripe across each other’s forehead. The old woman continues to the next hut and the two Fishers resume their shoulder-to-shoulder stance, Masozi looking left up the street, Themba scouring their right. Cloud shadows lumber into the village like the giant grey herd creatures from a children’s song.
When the leader is three huts away, Themba whispers excitedly: “Sozi, we should just tip the water on the ground. We could have fresh fish all year!”
Masozi sighs. Typical Themba. Always blurting crazy ideas before her head has caught up with her tongue, as if she was the only one who could think new thoughts. He nods at the carvings on the doorway. “You’re not a sky sister, little lion.” Then he widens his eyes in mock awe. “Or do silver scales appear every time you piss in the dust?”
Themba harrumphs, elbows him in the ribs and looks back to her side of the street.
Rain Day has started like this—half with ceremony and half with banter—since Masozi’s third and Themba’s first. Back then, Themba was as small and timid as a dune mouse. Compared with Masozi’s near-man growth, she’s still short. Pale, too, especially where the ochre-red water stains her face. But these moons he thinks she is as brave as any of the village boys, as brave as the lion for which he’s called her for as long as he can remember. He doesn’t tell her that, though. He says the name is for her ruff of tangled hair, snub nose and cat-like yellow eyes.
“There!” Themba whispers, careful not to draw anyone else’s attention. “Sozi, my man, look!”
Out in the street, a damp spot no bigger than a goat’s eye stains the dust. Within a moment it vanishes, sucked down into the hungry dirt. Masozi wonders if the first drop finds a fish egg or if it gets lost on its way. What if other drops are faster, stronger? Will they win the race?
Other Fishers shout from several huts up, where they think they’ve seen their own first drops. Then comes the flood. Masozi and Themba grin at each other. As one, they leap out into the street, throw their heads back and open their mouths to the downpour. Each fat drop tastes of the sky.
Across the way, three girls laugh and shriek as the rain soaks their shifts of finely spun goat’s wool. Masozi should only have eyes for the ground, for the first rain fish, but he finds himself watching the tallest girl. All the boys in the village know her name but wish they had more than that. Manyara.
She is one Rain Day older than Masozi but the distance between them is greater. A girl like Manyara will have her choice of a husband. She’ll choose a boy with many brothers and sisters, one from a big family that fills more catch baskets each Rain Day than they could ever need. A family with enough Builders to keep everyone comfortably shaded from the dry season sun. Why would Manyara ever look at him?
The thought doesn’t stop him watching, wishing. Manyara holds her arms above her head and twirls in the rain, her footsteps light and sure even on the mud-slick street. Her skin is the color of far off sandstone cliffs at dawn, banded light and dark by the sun’s defeat at hem and cuffs. In between their grabs for slippery fish, the other boy Fishers sneak glances at the curve of her breasts, her nipples outlined where her dress plasters her body. But it is the copper bands encircling her throat that Masozi’s eyes are drawn to. The metal rings make most of the village girls’ necks seem short and stocky. On Manyara, they only heighten her grace.
Masozi starts at a yank on his sleeve. Fist balled at her hip, Themba points to the ground with her other hand. Her mouth moves, but he can’t hear any words over the rain. Puddles pool at their feet but there isn’t a hint of movement. Masozi gives Themba a distracted smile and lets his attention drift back to Manyara.
Themba shouts at him, pointing to the red mud again. Sure enough, like the first star waking at dusk, a single fish wriggles up between Themba’s toes.
Masozi swoops. Luck fish!
“Hey!” Themba lunges at him.
He dances out of the way and bites off the squirming fish’s head, chews once, twice and swallows. “Too slow!”
“Thief!” Themba stamps a heel in the mud, rain flowing down her face. “That’s my fish. My luck.”
Masozi holds the twitching carcass above his head, out of Themba’s reach. “Make your own luck this year, little lion.” He takes another bite and tries to grin, but it’s all he can do not to cringe as a single fish scale cuts into the gum between his two front teeth.
More and more fish nose their way up through the mud and flip-flop around until they find a puddle. Fishers up and down the streets fill their baskets with birdlike darting movements. Themba joins them. There isn’t much time. The fish will stop waking when the rain stops falling.
Masozi gnaws his luck fish and does his best to fill his catch basket with his free hand. When he swallows the tail, he chances another look at Manyara. She stares straight back at him, eyes a brighter green than the first shoots after Rain Day.
Masozi is glad he had the luck fish last Rain Day. He still feels bad for Themba but she’ll have more chances. He won’t though, as this will be his last year as a Fisher. He’s sure of it. His grandmother will name him a Builder and send him to the Moon Festival beyond the border of his village’s land. He’s old enough to dance in the group of other newly named men until a girl with four neck circlets chooses him for a husband. Old enough to have kissed Manyara for hours behind her family’s fish-drying sheds. Just like he is kissing her now.
Here in the dust, with the delicious tang of dried fish floating about them, Masozi sits with his back against a warm mud brick wall. Manyara straddles his lap. She is soothing cactus pulp on Masozi’s sunburned skin, like his life was a bristle-bush husk before she noticed him, spiked and dry.
Before last Rain Day, he had thought any dreams of Manyara to be folly. He wasn’t the tallest or the strongest among the near-men, and it was just him and his father since his mother’s family had abandoned them after her death. What did he have to offer? A one-room hut, one crumbling fish-drying shed, a mere handful of frayed catch-baskets, and only one Fisher to fill them. Taunts from Masozi’s childhood used to honk and squawk in his head whenever he thought about it. But now that Manyara’s arms loop around him, her breath sweet from the honeygrass pods she chews, the painful memories flee as fast as giant traveler geese winging south after Rain Day.
As they kiss, Masozi runs his hand over Manyara’s shoulder and up to her neck like he has done on a hundred days before. His fingertips count the copper circlets resting in the hollow of her collarbone. Each metal ring is smaller and higher than the last and is engraved with a symbol marking the major events in a girl’s life. First Rain Day—a cloud half covering the sun. First fish caught single-handedly—a catch basket. First woman’s blood—Chausiku, the nearest of the three sister moons.
Masozi’s fingers touch a fourth circlet, its curve interrupted by the sharp lines of an etched mud brick. He jerks his mouth away from Manyara’s. “What’s that?” he asks, hating the panic that weaves between his words.
Manyara drops her hands from about him. “You know what it is. Mother named me a Builder.”
“Already? Why didn’t you tell me? How can you sit there and say that, as if,” he sucks in a breath, “as if you just finished weaving a basket?”
Manyara pouts. “Don’t be angry. It’s not my fault.”
Masozi rubs his thumb over the fourth copper ring. It burns like an ember in the sunset light. There is just enough room for him to hook his first finger underneath the metal band, made that way in case Manyara is still growing. He tugs at the circlet, pulling her face close to his again. “Will you choose me?”
“How many times do I have to tell you?”
“But what if Grandmother sends me to a different Festival to the one your mother chooses? Or if I hurt my ankle and I can’t dance.” Masozi doesn’t want to ask the final question, but Rain Day is overdue, so this may be his last chance. “What if I’m still a Fisher this year?”
Manyara’s face stills. “I will wait for you.”
Masozi steadies his breathing and straightens his back. These doubts are foolish—the cawing fears of a child. There will be no room for such things when he is making bricks with his own moulds.
In the dimness of the hut he shares with his father, Masozi holds his hands in front of him, palms up and empty. “Father, please. It’s my time. Themba’s brother has been named a Builder, and I have fished as many Rain Days as he.”
“You are not Themba’s brother.” Masozi’s father’s presence dominates the hut even from where he sits on the swept earth floor, peeling the thorns from a branch to fashion a new goat switch, his bad leg splayed out to the side.
“But Father, I—”
His father looks up. “Enough. We need the fish.”
“But if I were a Builder I’d put up more drying sheds. Then we’d have more fish than we can wave a switch at.”
“You and which village? Who will fish for us while you build and I’m away with the herd?”
“Manyara will choose me. She’ll give me children. We’ll loan fish from the big families. Pay them back in the following cycles. Everything will flow like rain.”
Masozi’s father rubs at the scars that ripple down his leg like a snake trail in the sand. “When we have enough goats, I will ask your grandmother to name you. Not before.”
The words make Masozi’s throat tighten. Not replying feels the same as choking on fish bones, but he says nothing. Instead, he pushes aside the heavy goat’s wool door-cover and steps into the searing heat.
He works his way along the rows of huts, moving quickly between the shadows. Even though it is late in the day, the sun still bites. Within minutes he finds himself behind Manyara’s family’s fish-drying shed. He slumps down in the shade to wait for her, closing his eyes against the slanting rays of sunset.
When Masozi wakes, it is dark. Chausiku has risen, casting just enough light to make the shadows darker than the plain. Manyara hasn’t come. Masozi swallows down the worry that writhes in his belly. There are many reasons why she might not have been able to meet him today. He will see her tomorrow, he is sure.
On the way home, he passes by Themba’s hut. The door-cover is rolled up to let the cool night air inside. Themba sits on the stoop, making sure the last of her family’s goat cheese for the season doesn’t burn on the outdoor cooking hearth. “Hey Sozi,” she calls, smiling almost shyly, firelight dancing over her face.
Masozi waves and jogs over to her. “Have you seen Manyara?”
Themba’s smile flattens. Her eyebrows arch up as if they’re fuzzy tree grubs and Masozi has shaken their branch. When she talks, she mimics a deep, male voice, “Hey Themba, how goes it? Sorry we haven’t seen each other much this season, Father has kept me busy with the herd, and—”
“Ach, Themb, don’t be like that. You know how it is with me and Manyara. You should get used to it.”
A funny little laugh bubbles from Themba’s lips, and she lowers her eyes to the slabs of cooking cheese. “I’ll get used to it when Rain Day comes every time I bleed.”
Masozi juts his chin. “She’s going to choose me when I’m named a Builder, you know.”
“Sure, Sozi. Sure.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Manyara left with my brother two nights ago. Mother named him a Builder. That girl’s a jackal. She’ll have her teeth into the most beautiful man as soon as she gets to the Festival.” The cheese sizzles and hisses as Themba flips it over. “I mean, the way she looked at Zuberi when she found out he was named? Eh.”
Masozi’s legs wobble. The fish bones are in his throat again, and his flesh stands up in prickle lizard bumps. “What?”
“Are your ears broken or something? My brother. Manyara. Jackal-girl got her fourth ring. Let it go, my man.”
Masozi scowls. “Don’t call me that.”
“Man. I’m not a man, yet.”
“Close enough,” she says with a shrug. “And I’ve always called you that.”
“You shouldn’t.” Stiffly, Masozi pushes himself to his feet, not yet trusting his legs. Is this the weakness his father feels? “I’m not your man. Never was.”
Themba flinches, looks down at the ground, draws in the dust with her big toe.
Masozi walks away.
After his father’s shadow melts into the night, driving the herd towards the hope of the last grass in the shadow of the Broken Mountains, Masozi dons his cloak. The stores basket in the corner of the hut is almost empty, but he snatches up two handfuls all the same and wraps the dried rain fish in the ceremonial Moon Festival skirt that his father had worn when Masozi’s mother chose him. He balances the load by tying on a water skin and drapes the makeshift pack across his shoulder blades. Then he steals into the dry cold of the desert night.
The second moon sets before he even reaches the border of the village lands. Cracked plains earth gives way to sand beneath his feet. When the third moon sets, he hunkers down on what will at sunrise be the shady side of a dune.
Halfway through his fourth night on foot, Masozi spots campfire light. Drum beats and whistles, shrieks and laughter carry to him on the wind. He creeps closer, peering through a copse of dead thorn-bush. Relief washes over him like precious rain when he sees so many men still dancing. Girls cluster together, giggling and pointing as they prepare to make their choice.
Masozi picks out Manyara at the edge of the group, standing half a head taller than the others. Themba’s brother waits behind her wearing his ceremonial skirt and jewelry, string upon string of ochred stone beads looped around his upper arms and across his bare chest. Masozi wonders why a newly named man wouldn’t dance. Perhaps his heart is still with a Fisher in the village, just the same as Manyara’s.
But as Masozi watches, Manyara turns her back on the drums and the sprays of sand sent flying by stomping feet. She reaches up and fondles one of the many strings of Themba’s brother’s stone beads, dark red against her palm. He puts his hands around her waist and picks her up. She wraps her legs around the small of his back and tips her head back with laughter, setting the copper circlets around her neck tinkling.
Mazosi feels the warmth leave his body as if a giant bloodworm, like the ones at the bottom of the village well, has burrowed under his skin and begun to suck the life from him. If he doesn’t do something, he will be a husk again soon. All the moons are up now, adding to the campfire light. But he still has the shelter of the bushes, so he drops his belongings and shrugs out of his cloak. He shakes the last of the dried fish from his father’s skirt and wraps it around his waist, tying it off with its simple string of beads.
Shortly after he enters the camp, a strong arm blocks his way.
“What do you think you’re doing, boy?” The voice doesn’t come from the muscled Builder but from the old woman beside him.
Masozi doesn’t need to study the weathered face. The leader of his village is unmistakable. “I’ve come to dance,” he manages.
The village leader’s features pinch together, her face a worn and wrinkled goat hide. “I know your father,” her voice rasps like an asp shedding its skin, but there’s stone beneath. She pokes him in the chest with a bony finger. “You’re no Builder. Boys do not dance the Festival.”
Heat floods Masozi’s cheeks as he realizes others in the camp are watching. How pathetic they must think him, standing here with only one string of faded beads, shrinking back under the gaze of the village leader, never having learned from his mother how to address her properly. Then Manyara sees him. She untangles herself from Themba’s brother and runs across the main circle of sand toward them. Like birds returning after Rain Day, Masozi’s spirits soar.
“Masozi! What are you doing here?”
“What are you doing with him? You said you’d choose me!”
“What did you expect me to do? You haven’t been named.”
“But you said you love me.”
“I have to look after my family. Zuberi has five brothers and sisters. I—”
Masozi doesn’t hear her words. His blood thrums in his ears, louder than the Festival drums in the distance. Manyara is soothing Themba’s brother, just like she used to soothe him. Reeling, he flinches away from the harsh camp light and the harsher stares and slinks back into the night. When he chances a look over his shoulder, Manyara is only a faceless shadow.
The way home seems longer. His feet drag and his head feels dried out, the same as his now-empty water skin. He doesn’t realize when the moonlight vanishes. Doesn’t see the clouds until he trips on the remains of an ancient grazing animal—its bone and twisted horns long turned to rock—and realizes there’s no light but for the stars near the horizon.
A drop of water falls on his foot. No, he thinks, it can’t be. He looks to the sky directly above. Another drop splashes his upturned cheek. No, it’s too early. He has no baskets, no drying sheds. He stumbles into a jog.
Thunder growls at his heels like a pack of black-muzzled plains dogs on the hunt, teeth snapping lightning white all around him. It sets him to running, blind running. He sprints across the saltpans as the rain falls, feet slapping in the puddles and squishing little silver bodies back into the deepening mud.
Night is the only refuge during the hot season and, in the months since Rain Day, Masozi’s only refuge from his shame. He sits on his front stoop with a knife in his hand. The blade shines in the moonlight. With only a handful of dead fish left on the ground by the time he returned from the Moon Festival, and now that the goat udders have run dry for the year, he and his father are out of food.
He studies the blade; imagines jerking it across the milky throat of his father’s best animal. It’s almost like he can hear the beast’s gurgled squeal before it goes limp, feel the sticky blood run over his hands as he collects the precious liquid in an ochre stained pot.
The chirping of night insects falls silent around him. He looks up. A figure approaches from the village center. Themba has avoided him since last Rain Day, but now she heads straight toward him, dragging a basket that Masozi guesses weighs as much as she does.
When she reaches him, she steadies the basket in the dirt. Then she steps forward and slaps Masozi across the face. Hard. “Stupid boy.”
Masozi touches his cheek, blinks once, twice.
Themba points to the basket. “Don’t think this means we’re friends.” She shakes her head. “Not that it matters. I’m leaving.”
He gapes up at her.
She looks moonward, as if asking the three sisters whether their brother has burned out Masozi’s brains. “Now that they have Manyara, and my youngest sister is ready to fish, my family doesn’t need me. I’m starting for the Broken Mountains tomorrow.”
“Stone. I’m going to build an extra well. If the water doesn’t bring fish, it will at least keep the grass alive and the goats fed.” Turning on her heel, she starts back to the village with chin held high. There’s no break to her stride, no glance over her shoulder.
Masozi scowls after her. Some friend Themba is, to talk like that. Who is she to say who’s stupid, what with all her crazy ideas? And how was any of this his fault? If not for Themba’s brother, Manyara would have come back home to him. Or if his father had just had enough faith in him to have him named Builder, he would have danced and Manyara would have chosen him. But in the light of Chausiku, he knows these are lies.
He leans forward and slices through the thong on the cover of the basket. Hundreds of sunken eyes stare accusingly up at him.
It is more fish than Masozi has ever collected in a single Rain Day. He should be relieved—no goat would have to die this season. But Themba’s receding shadow cuts into him in a way no knife ever has.
He drops the blade and begins to cry. Wrapping his arms around his knees, he pulls his chin to his chest. Tears run down his nose to drip into the dust. If it were daytime, he would see the ground between his feet turn damp and dark, but in the moonlight he doesn’t notice—until a speck of silver glints up at him.
It makes him stop still, eyes wide. A tiny head wriggles free. Out pops a fin, and another, until the fish flips from the dirt. For a moment, he hesitates. Then he reaches down, cups the fish in his hands and runs after Themba.
He catches up to her just before she pulls aside the door-cover to her hut. His sides heave from the run so he doesn’t talk. He simply holds out the fish. Its mouth opens and closes, gasping for air just like him.
As if it were Rain Day, they stand together on the stoop, both staring at the dying miracle in Masozi’s palm. Finally, the fish stills.
Themba eases his hand away, her touch gentle. “Take it,” she says. “I make my own luck.”
Masozi’s thoughts race over each other. “I’ll dry it for you. Keep it here until you get back. In case you change your mind.”
Themba smiles, lion yellow eyes reflecting Chausiku’s light.
It’s the best smile Masozi has ever seen.