Everywhere the bodies were disappearing. Bodies of water, that is: the puddles, the sloughs, the ponds. Even the great river that ran among the lakes was growing smaller.
On a tiny allotment, in a gentle valley, not far from a little village, the swimmer was crying. The air was so crisp each tear shrank to a grain of salt and was borne away on the breeze. She was crying because her beloved Lake Small was about to disappear. On fair weather days, she used to swim across the lake to the big rock and bask like a turtle in the sun’s kindly warmth.
But not anymore. The lake had dwindled to a puddle in the bottom of a crater. She could see the lakebed covered with stones and plastic bottles and dead fish staring up at the cloudless sky. Boats lay aground, logs festered in cloying mud, and piers stretched impotently from shore to…empty air.
A cruel, hot wind had sucked away the water. At first, the water levels fell bit by bit, and the villagers barely noticed, then all at once Lake Small and its moisture-craving creatures began to disappear.
The swimmer grew very sad. She walked up and down the hills and valleys, stopping by cool nooks at least once a day to see if any dew had collected.
Every day she stopped at the hole that was once Lake Small. Entire shells of turtles, skeletons of deer, antlers of elk, and even the skull of one unlucky woodsman lay bleaching under the relentless blaze of the sun. More secrets were revealed from a century ago, a time when some villagers had come back from The War and shed their weapons in the murky depths of the forgiving lake. Anchors, knives, axes, guns, rifle butts, and even an unexploded grenade slept under a layer of smooth mud, turning to silt.
The days grew shorter, a sign that the villagers must prepare for the time of Cold Drought. No one had the heart to call that season ‘Winter’ when it had no fairy-puff snow and no sparkling ice.
Every night the swimmer called her little goats down from the trees, which they’d learned to climb so they could nibble on the last juicy prickles they could find, and put them in their night shed to stay warm.
She recalled the swims she used to take in autumn when the air was chilly and the water still held summer’s warmth. “Ah, Lake Small, how I miss your caress,” she said, and the very dirt around her began moving. A flock of sparrows was staying close to the ground. Mice with feathers. Indeed, most birds had stopped flying because there were no green branches to welcome them, only naked branches in the desiccated air. The biggest of the sparrows cocked an eye at the swimmer and said, “Be ye lost?”
“No,” she replied. “I be shedding a tear for Lake Small.”
“Go talk to Tomten,” the bird chirped.
“Who be Tomten?”
“The elvish one who lives under the bridge that lies over the great river.”
“Does Tomten know where Lake Small has gone?”
“Who else? Who else?” the flock of sparrows twittered.
“Can Tomten get it back?”
“Who else? Who else?” they twittered again. “Bring a token of appreciation,” the leader said.
“A token for Tomten,” they chittered.
A token of appreciation? The best thing she owned was great-grandfather’s nyckelharpa, an instrument from whose silver strings and oaken pegs the finest melodies could be coaxed. In finest silk she swaddled it, then wrapped it again with finest wool, and packed it into her rucksack. For three days she traveled over hill and dale toward the great river. What began as a small twisty path from her village became straighter and broader. She followed the riverbank until she came to the bridge, then looked for the shelter below.
Vines and creepers covered the sides of a little squat house. She lifted the creaky knocker and rapped three times. The door flung open and Tomten’s head poked out. “What do ye want?” he yelled. His bloodshot eyes bored into hers until she blinked.
“Oh, Tomten, please help,” she cried. “I have traveled for three days to see ye.”
Tomten preened at the thought of his great renown and bade her enter his cellar house.
The swimmer had heard the tomtens were small folk, but the Tomten who invited her in was as tall as she, and hairy and gnarled. Truth be told, she could not see him if she looked at him directly; she could see him only if she cast her glance to one side or the other.
“I be a swimmer from Lake Small,” she said. “Our lake has disappeared, and I heard ye might be able to help.”
“Heard?” he snorted. “How have ye heard?”
“A small bird told me,” she said.
He preened some more. “And why should I help ye?” he said. “I have tons of water here.” He pointed to a stalactite in his cellar that went drip-drip-drip into a tea kettle.
“Tons, yes, but not forever. Lake Small flows into streams,” the swimmer said, “and these flow into your great river. And I’ve heard the river be shrinking, too.”
“I brought ye a token of appreciation from Lake Small.” She held her breath as she presented the wool-wrapped silken bundle.
Saliva dripped from Tomten’s lip as he seized the bundle and sniffed it. He tore off the covering from the nyckelharpa. “Ugh! What be this thing?”
“Its silv’ry strings make a lullaby sound like water be lapping at the side of a boat,” the swimmer said.
Plunk-plunk-plunk! With a dirty, pointy finger, Tomten plucked the nyckelharpa so hard the strings snapped and curled into little death spirals. The swimmer flinched. Tomten laughed. Snap-snap-snap! He broke off the oaken pegs. He stuck his hairy-knuckled fingers into the sound holes. The swimmer covered her ears and hid her tears.
The Tomten yawned and she took it as a cue.
“Now tell us, please,” she asked. “How can we get Lake Small back?
Tomten drew his finger from a sound hole. He licked it and held it up to the air. The swimmer noticed high overhead the pale fluff of a cloud in the blue, blue sky.
Tomten leaned close to her and spoke with hot fetid breath. “When the moon is full, take a large earthen bowl. Put in three water-rounded stones. Put in the sun-whitened bones of a fish. And put in the empty crayfish shell, the biggest ye can find. Set the bowl in the center of the crater where Lake Small used to be and fill the bowl with water.”
Three days later the swimmer was back at her tiny allotment. Although weary from her trek, she had to act while the moon was full. Late that night she carried the earthenware bowl to the bottom of the crater. She put in the stones and fishbones and cray-husk. Using water from the village cistern (which was all anyone had any more and even that was disappearing), she topped up the bowl as Tomten had told her.
The shuffling of the night creatures and the muffled cry of the screech owl frightened the swimmer, who ran back home, in such panting haste she did not see the wisp of a cloud pass over the moon like the veil over a face.
The next morning the swimmer awoke to the sound of pebbles flung against her roof. She staggered to her feet and saw these were not pebbles—but fat drops of rain. She closed the shutter and listened.
She went to make quickbread but her bowl was gone—and then she remembered Tomten’s commands she had obeyed. She opened her cottage door and felt twelve more raindrops slam against her hands and face. Then the rain stopped.
Lightning flared in the east. A short, hard rain started up again, snapping branches, breaking the stained glass window in the church, and driving the wee goats, bleating and complaining, down from their spiny trees into their night shed.
Just as suddenly, the rain stopped again.
The swimmer went to explore. She met the flock of sodden sparrows, nearly drowned by the rain since there were no tree leaves for cover. She saw low built homes flooded by the short, hard rain. She saw carts overturned on the path and cows that had drowned when a stream had filled too fast.
When she got to Lake Small, she cried out in dismay. A few puddles shone here and there, but most of the lakebed was still dry as moondust. Up, way up, hung the biggest rain cloud she had ever seen. Mottled gray and black, it was dark as a murderer’s soul. The underbelly bulged low, ready to dump a load of rain any minute.
The swimmer, although a lover of water, trembled to think of its mighty mass. Sheltering under a rock overhang, she waited all day for the rain to begin but…nothing happened. The last tiny creatures in the last tiny puddles shriveled up and died.
The flock of half-drowned sparrows crawled toward her. The leader cocked its eye at her and chirped, “Tomten! Tomten!” then dropped dead at her feet.
The swimmer went home, packed her three-day rucksack, and began the arduous trek back to the bridge over the great river. The way was harder than before, with more detours due to washouts and mudslides.
When she reached the bridge, Tomten’s door was harder to find, hidden under an overgrown thicket of bramble-poke.
“Tomten, Tomten, ye tricked me,” the swimmer shrieked. “You said ye would bring back water to the lake—now, please! Put the water in the lake.”
“No trick.” Tomten’s voice was high and peevish. “Lake needs rain, rain needs lake.”
“But the rain be staying in the cloud,” she said.
“I told ye the charms,” Tomten said. “The answer be found in Lake Small—and your own heart.”
The swimmer felt a westerly breeze stirring. Even a small breeze might push that cloud away from the crater. She had to get back, no matter how empty his advice. Chewing over his words, she saddled up her rucksack and hiked three days back. She returned to the hole where the cloud still hung, even bigger than before.
She climbed down the hole and walked under the gargantuan cloud. With her heart in her throat, she picked up her quickbread bowl and ran to the other side. Nothing happened.
The answer be found in Lake Small—and your own heart.
She thought long and hard. Water is best when it be spread among everything that needs it. It can’t be stored away forever. She tiptoed under the cloud again. This time she collected lakebed things: the fish bones, a dried-out turtle shell, some sea glass, rusty weapons, and the dusty old grenade. The bowl became heavy, her limbs began to ache, and her spine stooped with the load. She crossed the barren crater and clambered out the other side.
She stood on the big rock with her bowl in one arm and began throwing lakebed things at the cloud. She thought of great-grandfather’s ruined nyckelharpa. She thought of the dead birds. She thought of the disappearing bodies, everywhere. All be for nought if rain be stopped. Shells and bones, glass and stones, axes and knives: they disappeared into the dense and unmoving cloud like seeds into jelly—until only the dusty grenade remained in her bowl. She pulled out the pin and lobbed it with all her might into the belly of the cloud.
When she came to, the swimmer was lying flat on the big rock, limbs spread wide like a starfish. Rain was pattering all over. Showering her arms and legs and face with so many wet kisses. Looking up, she saw the dome of blue sky dotted with many light gray clouds.
The hush of autumn rains was upon the land.