selected for publication by Craig Santos Perez
sponsored by I-Regen at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
“Nahla,” the old woman says from the bed. “Nahla, it is past time. Kill me.”
It is the same conversation they have had every day for the past six months. Nahla doesn’t answer this time. The generator-powered record player fills the silence with some old Motown song her grandma loves, something she says reminds her of her youth.
Nahla turns to look out the cracked bedroom window. The unceasing wind has covered it in dirt, but she knows the view by heart: a parched yard leading to a forsaken suburban road covered in dust. Beyond that, rows of abandoned houses.
If her grandma could still see, Nahla might bother to clean the window. If she could still see, the rain would clean the window for her. But her grandma is blind. And that’s why she says Nahla needs to kill her: to bring back the rain. She says rainmakers have to be able to see the sky.
Once, Nahla didn’t believe her. Now she does. She has felt the magic. And thinking about it yet again makes her so heartbroken she can barely speak as she mumbles something to her grandma and hurries outside.
Clouds gather on the horizon, big cruel clouds that remind her of summers past, when glorious monsoon storms flooded gutters and made the air smell different.
Now the air is always the same. No fresh tang. Just dust.
Nahla knows these clouds are just for show. There hasn’t been rain in years. There hasn’t been anything in years, except wind. Wind and memories of what came before.
She had been nearly twelve when she experienced her last downpour. Her grandma’s eyesight began to fail the following winter, and then the summer after that there were only a couple of light showers. Nahla hadn’t realized she should’ve been paying attention, should’ve been committing to memory every single sensation: the instant cooling of her skin when the rain hit it, the sound of her friend’s feet sloshing through the puddles at the end of the road, the way the desert wash beyond broke out into purple and saffron flower the next day.
The wind snaps a loose window screen back against the house, and Nahla drops her eyes from the clouds to the ground.
It is astonishing how quickly a street of houses can be reclaimed by the desert when no one lives there anymore. When rain — even the sparse rain of the desert — disappears and stops plumping the soil. The buildings have enormous cracks fissuring up walls, and sinkholes had opened up in more than one yard. The Rincons’ old house on the corner had fallen apart completely when a microburst sent the top half of their old mesquite crashing through the roof.
That was back when the weather still had a personality, could still surprise with lightning and turbulence. Now each day is filled only with the constant wind — not so strong as to topple trees dramatically, but enough to rip away parts of houses as the months dried into years.
The Rincons had left within the week after their mesquite fell. They weren’t the first to migrate farther north, where rain still fell, but they were far from the last. Some of the neighbors held on, denying the change or perhaps feeling some sort of loyalty to the land. But eventually even they left, urging Nahla to come with them.
But she couldn’t leave. Her grandparents wouldn’t leave the home they’d built, and Nahla wouldn’t leave them. They had been the only family she’d had since her parents died when she was a toddler.
Her grandparents hadn’t been young — they’d had Nahla’s mother somewhat late in life — but they had embraced a second round of parenting. Her grandmother taught her to sing, though Nahla hadn’t always understood the songs. And her grandfather — a combination of tinkerer and boy scout — taught her how to tend the surprisingly fruitful garden in the backyard and how to can the yield. His faithfulness in harvesting every possible usable item carried them through after the stores closed. Her grandpa’s pantry was once so full that he eventually turned the smallest bedroom into extended storage.
That room is empty now. And the original pantry is down to its final shelves. In the garage, Nahla had guarded three cans of gasoline, enough to get them somewhere else. But she hadn’t been able to convince her grandma to leave.
Now her grandma is ready to go, but not in a way that Nahla would accept.
Nahla reluctantly returns to the house to put together some kind of dinner. She shoves rags under the door — the threshold long ago disintegrated — in an attempt to keep out the dust.
She puts together a tray of what she could find in the pantry, carrying it into her grandma’s room.
“You start without me,” the old voice calls from the bed. “I am not hungry this evening.”
As Nahla eats small bites — scraping her fork along the plate to make it seem like she is following orders without actually consuming all the food — her grandma sings. Her raspy voice sings the words that as a child Nahla hadn’t understood, words that only later did her grandma explain. Nahla squints at the dusty window and remembers that shattering conversation.
“You are old enough now,” her grandma had told a nearly thirteen-year-old Nahla a year after the rains stopped completely, the summer that her body somehow, despite everything, managed to turn her into a woman. Only then did she explain to Nahla what the songs meant.
They meant hope. But they also meant great sorrow.
They meant that Nahla’s path was already decided.
Back in the present, Nahla — now entirely grown, as one is when one is seventeen and hasn’t ever been any older than that — watches her grandma as she sings instead of eating the meager dinner. She watches the milky eyes that had once been piercing, that had once spotted a lie immediately, that had once looked at her with such love that Nahla didn’t feel alone.
And even though her grandma is still here, right in front of her, Nahla misses her fiercely.
She is angry. She is angry at her parents for getting killed on the road, for leaving her here on her own to deal with what must come next. Angry at her grandpa for dying last winter. Angry at the wind that never stops. Angry at the nearly empty pantry. Angry at the desert animals that grow scarcer every year.
Angry at the stupid rules that exact such a terrible price — that said she had to cut out a piece of herself to become who she was meant to be.
Nahla must kill her grandma. She is stuck in this dust-coated limbo until she does.
The summer when her grandma first explained the songs, she had been brushing Nahla’s hair when she brought up their legacy.
“Our family lived here long before this neighborhood arose, long before the canals were cemented over, long before the canals were even dug.”
The brush moved slowly through Nahla’s hair.
“There has always been at least one woman from our family here. It is both our burden and our joy.
“Do you understand what I mean when I say joy? Joy isn’t the same as happiness. Joy is more than just finding a wrapped candy you’d forgotten about or sharing a secret with a best friend. Joy is knowing you are in the right place, doing the right thing, making the world run right. Joy is feeling exhausted but glad that you’re exhausted, because you filled your hours with good work. Joy is good, but it isn’t always happy. Remember that.”
The brush stilled mid-stroke. Nahla felt a change in the room.
“Nahla, remember the rains? Remember how they came every summer and even sometimes in winter? Remember how they made Grandpa’s garden grow tall, and made our street clean and people smile?”
Nahla gave the smallest nod of her head.
“That’s our work. That’s our burden, and our joy. We are the rainmakers. We make a bargain with the sky and bring the rain.”
Nahla looked skeptically at her grandma, who sensed what her eyes couldn’t see.
“I know you think I am spinning an old woman’s tale. I am not. This is the truth of our family. Why do you think we never left when everyone else did?”
Nahla finally found her voice. “If that’s true, why doesn’t it rain anymore?”
Her grandma looked directly at her, and for a moment Nahla felt like she could see again.
“Can you not guess? When did I lose my sight, Nahla? Was it not the same time that the rains dried up?”
Nahla had no response.
“You do not answer because you know I am right. As scared as you are right now that I have maybe gone mad, you are also scared that I am perfectly sane and telling you the truth. We are the rainmakers. But we need our eyes to bargain with the sky.”
The girl’s eyebrows scrunched together as she thought this through, looking for the flaw in the logic that would show her grandma was only telling her a story. She jumped up and ran to the window, staring up at the sky.
“It’s not true,” Nahla said after a moment, turning to her grandma with a victorious gleam on her face. “I just stared at the sky and nothing happened. There’s still no rain.”
Her grandma sat quietly, pulling her hands close to her chest.
“That’s not how it works. I need to teach you the songs that make the bargain. I need to teach you the language the sky speaks. And then —”
Her face filled with sorrow.
“And then you must kill me. Only the oldest woman of the line can do the bargaining, and with my useless eyes I’m just taking up the space that should be filled by you.”
A wave of dust suddenly entered the house. Nahla had run out, leaving the door ajar.
In the years since that first conversation, her grandma had been relentless in her teachings. Even as Nahla resisted, even as she spent more time away outside, her nascent teen years emboldening her with defiance, her grandma was stronger. More stubborn.
And as the years passed, more urgent.
She began with a song that made Nahla want to weep from its stark tune, working up to more complicated songs. Songs that had a harmony even though only one voice sang them. She always stood a few feet away, more like a drill sergeant than a grandma, making Nahla sing the songs over and over until Nahla was filled not with joy but with hatred at their sound.
It took years to master the songs to her grandma’s satisfaction — she said it was crucial Nahla commit it all to perfect memory, as there would be no one to ask after she was gone. Nahla sometimes tested it, standing outside and staring into the sky, the wind whipping away the songs as soon as she sang them. Nothing ever happened, other than her throat getting dry.
They reached a sort of stasis eventually, with all the teachings taught. Nahla’s grandma would still test her once a week or so, but her urgency had tapered. For six months now, she’d had a different mission: convincing Nahla to take the final step.
“It’s not fair to you; I know this,” she had said to Nahla one hot afternoon when both of them sat under one of the few remaining trees big enough to offer shade. “If your mother were still here, this would fall to her. You’d have had years to learn from her, to go off adventuring and living your life while she took care of things here. It’s not fair you have to do this so young.”
Nahla tried not to think about this other life. And she also tried not to think about something she hadn’t told her grandma, that the past few times she’d practiced the songs, she’d felt something different. As she’d sung the words, she’d no longer noticed the gritty dust in her teeth. She hadn’t felt her endless fatigue and growling stomach. She had even — for the space of one song — ceased to be thirsty. It was like her bones truly aligned inside her body for the first time, like her eyes saw things in sharper focus. Her body told her this was right, this was good.
She had felt wonderful. And she had known the truth for the first time, that everything her grandma had told her was right. This was what she was meant to do. But she wasn’t ready to lose the only family she had left.
Her grandpa had been on the periphery of these teachings, the support staff to the classroom of one. When Nahla wasn’t singing, her grandpa was showing her how to hunt, how to maintain the well he’d dug without city permission in those final years of rain, how to find water when that well eventually ran dry.
He’d also taught her all the things that had nothing to do with rain and songs. He taught her how to play gin rummy. He explained how to navigate by the stars and how to understand Shakespeare. He taught her to dance and told her that the right man — and there would be men in her life someday, he assured her — wouldn’t mind that she liked to lead.
That final winter a deep cough turned overnight to pneumonia, and he’d been gone before Nahla realized he was leaving.
Rather than it preparing her to let her grandma go, Nahla held onto her with ferocity — even as the songs stirred more and more within her.
So now, two women mark the days with routine. The same dwindling food. The same conversation. The same wind, always the same wind.
And Nahla is filled with anger, as much as she is filled with what she realizes is the joy her grandma once told her about — joy as the songs fill her and make her blood feel clean.
How can she be asked to do this? Why can’t she have both? Both the work she was meant to do and the last family member she had left? And if she really must choose … well, then she will just delay that decision. She is still able to scrape together enough food for them. And if it gets really bad, she still has the gasoline and the off-roader. They can just drive to water.
Wait — she still has the gasoline and car. Why hadn’t she thought of this before? Why had she been waiting to get her grandma to agree to leave?
Nahla turns toward the house, determined to go. Now. But the closer she gets, the more she feels her shoulders slump and her feet drag, her body betraying her. She stops and looks at the sky; her mouth opens to shout at it, but a song escapes instead. The words of her family’s women meet the air, and Nahla begins to sob — moisture and emotion she really can’t spare.
She takes one long, slow breath and holds it, and as she lets it out, she begins to sprint toward the house. Nahla will not let herself stop to make a measured plan; her heart is fighting to betray itself and she has to keep ahead of it. She grabs all the food and water that she can, carrying it in a laundry basket to the car. A few blankets follow and then the gasoline.
Nahla only lets herself stop when she reaches her grandma’s bedroom door. The old woman is sleeping, tiny breaths that barely move her chest. Nahla quietly walks to the bed and scoops her up, her heart squeezing at how light and frail and easy she is to carry.
She wakes only when they are already on the road, as the tires hit the first obstacle.
“Nahla, no,” she says in something like pity. “You cannot outrun this. I am ready.”
Nahla ignores her, concentrating on the path ahead.
“Child, we cannot leave. We cannot — ” here she gasps as the vehicle jolts, and she closes her eyes for a moment before continuing.
“You do not have forever. The land will reach a point when it’s beyond the redemption of rain. And then it will be too late for the land, and for you. How many chances do you think we have at joy? Do you think if you ignore this, you will ever feel anything but regret?”
Nahla slows as they approach a stand of trees, her tears making navigating impossible.
“And what, Grandma, I won’t feel regret after killing you? You are the last I have.”
“I am not the last you have. I am the last for this moment only. You will sing, and you will bring back first the rain and then the people. Among them you will someday find family.”
The sky outside becomes darker, and Nahla thinks — is it possible? — she thinks the always-constant wind has changed. Grown stronger. The dust is thicker. So thick that it reminds her of the mighty dust storms in summers past, storms so large and menacing and majestic that people turned to other languages to find a name for them.
There is a great crashing sound, and as the dust clears slightly Nahla can see that the trees have uprooted and somehow surrounded the vehicle with their fallen trunks.
Her grandma feels for her hand and grasps it.
“Nahla, it’s all right. I have lived a long life and have had so much good. I regret nothing, except that I am standing in your way. I am asking you to do this for me.”
Nahla feels her heart ripping. She stills, and in that moment her heart decides.
“What do I do?” Nahla asks, choking back a sob.
Her grandma puts her hand on Nahla’s chest, just above her heart.
“Don’t you know? Didn’t you know from the first time you sang it?” she says, her face creasing in a look of gentleness. “That very first song I taught you, the one that filled you with sadness. That is what you will sing to the sky, only this time you’ll do it with your hand in mine.”
Nahla helps her move to the backseat and lie down, sitting with her so that her grandma’s head is on her lap. She strokes her grandma’s hair as they sing one of their favorite songs together one last time — this tune not the sad one, but one whose melody skips around and seems to fill the car with the scents of Nahla’s childhood.
Her grandma draws Nahla’s hand to her lips, kissing it softly before holding it between both of hers.
Nahla knows nothing will be the same after this moment. She opens her mouth anyway. She sings the melancholy tune — the first one her grandma taught her and the last one she’ll hear. She sings it while staring out the open car window, glaring at the sky. She holds her free hand outside, though she doesn’t know whether she’s trying to hold the sky back or to beseech it.
She sings the song, her view of the sky blurring near the end as tears drench her face.
She brings her hand back inside, resting it on her grandma’s now-still chest. It will be some moments before she realizes the wetness on her hand is not tears.
Penny Walker is director of ASU News at Arizona State University, where she is studying creative writing. She attended the University of Kansas (rock chalk!) the first time around before working at The Arizona Republic newspaper for sixteen years, mainly on the editing side. Penny is an emerging speculative fiction writer, and her futuristic menu placed third in the AI Institute for Resilient Agriculture’s Future of Food 2050 writing contest in 2023. “From Dust,” the winner of Ninth Letter’s Regeneration contest, is her first published short story. She lives in Tempe, Arizona, with her husband and a large supply of yarn.
Guest Judge: Dr. Craig Santos Perez is a native Pacific Islander from Guam. He is the co-editor of six anthologies and the author of six books of poetry. He is a professor in the English department at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa, where he teaches creative writing and eco-poetry. His poetry has received multiple awards, including the 2023 National Book Award, a 2015 American Book Award and the 2011 PEN Center USA Literary Award for Poetry.
The Regeneration Literary Contest is sponsored by I-Regen. I Regen fits into the iSEE research theme of Secure and Sustainable Agriculture. Originally called the Illinois Regenerative Agriculture Initiative and sponsored in 2020 by Fresh Taste, the Initiative was renewed and renamed in 2023 with funding by the Midwest Regenerative Agriculture Fund (MRAF). I-Regen is a partnership between the Department of Crop Sciences, the College of ACES, U of I Extension, and iSEE.