Rain, Rain, Go away!
Originally printed in Weird Tales, May, 1946
Gardner F Fox
For the smell of rain was a stench in his nostrils, reminding him of death.
ANTON MARKOV stood at the window, looking out into the dull gray gloom of the day. It was going to rain. He pulled the shade down quickly, fearing that he might see the first splattering of the drops against the sidewalk below. Anton shuddered spasmodically. He was afraid of rain, deathly afraid.
He knew there was no reason for his fear; no sane reason that is. It has always been with him, even when he was a small child going to school. Often had he cowered in the shelter of a doorway as a grayish wetness flooded down from above, spending its fury in bouncing water on glistening flagging; eyes closed, afraid to look, afraid the rain might touch him. His obsession sat like an evil witch astride his thin shoulders, haunting him. The smell of rain, that the others he knew liked so much, was a stench in his nostrils, reminding him of death. The coolness after the storm was to him the lifting of a nameless dread that had squeezed his heart and frozen his muscles all during the downpour.
He was mocked and misunderstood in school. Now that he understood a little better the inborn cruelty of children, he was content. But in those days it had been an added torment. Their shrill voices put lines in his pallid face, and twisted the corners of his thin mouth into sullen things.
He never told anyone about the dream. There was no close friend with a willing ear and a soothing tongue—
His hands were shaking. He patted his black, soiled tie with moist palms. Then he put them on his coat and rubbed them dry, and slipped them into his pockets. Anton looked around the room. He must find something to do. He could not stand here during the storm that was coming, and he did not want to get into bed and pull the covers over his head and lie there shivering as with an ague.
Books on the littered desk he lifted and rearranged and finally put down. His tongue slipped out to moisten his lips. Something to do, something to do. Yes, he would find something to occupy the time when that stuff would come pouring down, drenching everything, casting a damp pall over the City.
He looked at his wristwatch. Ten minutes past three on a Saturday afternoon. No work until Monday. And it was going to rain.
"Damn!" he whispered. "Oh, damn! Why can't I be normal?"
Anton thought of Evans Carrel who worked with him, and of Betty Stokes, wondering what they'd say if they could see him hiding here from falling water.
"But it isn't just falling water," he lashed out with hysteria lurking in the words. "It's more than that. I know it is, I know it. But I can't prove it. I don't know what it is. My dream doesn't go that far!"
The dream. He could see the frogs being beaten by needle-thin bamboo rods, their fish-belly white throats bulging in their croaking agony while the thin rods dug into them. And after that beating the clap of thunder, and the deluge when the heavens opened like bomb-bay doors and the water came down.
Always he lay on his back, watching that water coming toward him, never quite touching him in his dream. That was what added to his torment. His dream took him just so far, and never any further.
He sat in a chair and buried his face in his hands.
"What happens after that? Why doesn't the rain ever reach me?” he muttered thickly. "If only it would, just once! Then I might walk bareheaded in real rain, and not be frightened by it!"
Why doesn't it rain?
He looked up at the ceiling and cried, "Get it over with! Get done with it. Then I can relax. Let me alone, alone!”
With trembling hands, he rubbed his face. He said softly, "This won't do. I can't sit here and wait. Wait. Wait! I can't do it.”
HE opened a closet door and took out a bottle and held it to the light. Empty at a time like this. A drink or two might snap him out of his fog. At least, it would help him lie in a hazy coma on the bed. Then let it rain all it wanted. He wouldn't care not with a few drinks in him. But the bottle was empty. He dropped it into the wastebasket and stood staring down at it.
Anton dropped into the chair again and pulled paper and a pen toward him. But when the gold point of the touched the paper, it scratched and made a blue splash of ink. He couldn't even write a letter!
He shuddered, standing up so abruptly the chair clattered over behind him. He let it lie.
"I'm going out," he said through stiff lips, "and buy a bottle and hurry back. I've got to. I can't stand it, today. Some days it isn't this bad, but I need a drink today. A lot of drinks.”
He talked to himself, shivering as he put on a dark brown sweater, and his black coat over it. He ran down the steps and into the street.
It won't rain before I come back, he thought. It can't play a trick like that, he whispered, knowing all the time how treacherous this rain was with its soft touch that was so much like a caress, yet evil as a witch's brew. Many the time he had thought to elude it, and it tricked him; but once in a while he tricked the rain, and deep in side him a flame of joy and triumph flared into life. Those moments made his daring possible. If the rain won all the time, he would want to kill himself.
The store was not far. He could see the red neon signs blazing in the window, making the bottles glimmer. A faint red haze of light fell on the sidewalk. The liquor store window seemed a little friendlier with those crimson neon blazing like beacons.
He dodged around the big gray roadster parked in front of the store, and went in.
There was a man in the store, vaguely familiar; the big shoulders in the tan camel’s-hair coat, the blue jowls jutting from under the wide mouth, the hearty voice. The man turned as Anton closed the door.
“Anton! I'll be damned. You live around here?’’
"Hello, Evans. What are you doing in my neighborhood?”
"Stopped by with Betty Stokes. We're going over to my diggings, for a snort or two during the storm."
Anton looked back at the sullen gray day through the plate glass window. He pulled his coat a little tighter around him.
"Yes," he said nervously. "A storm is brewing. I'd better hurry—before it breaks, you know. Don't like to get caught out in the—the rain."
Evans Carrel nodded, watching the clerk wrap his bottle. He swung around suddenly, crying, "Why not come with us, Tony? Up to my place. Hey? What say?"
“No, no. I couldn't think of it," Anton said with an apologetic smile. He could not let Evans and Betty see him in the blue funk the rain caused. He looked at Evans shyly, taking in his big, capable hands and the grim face that was lightened a little by a smiling mouth. He envied him his strength, suddenly. Anton looked at the clerk.
"A bottle of rye, please. Any kind. No, just a pint."
Tucking his purchase under his arm, Evans grinned at him.
“Sure you won't join us? In this case, three is company. Honest, old man, we'd both love to have you. Why not come along?"
THE idea nearly tempted Anton. It made him glow inside with friendliness, with appreciation of this gesture. Perhaps it would work out all right. He might forget the rain with company. He thought, I wish I owned the courage to go with them, to share their talk and laughter, maybe in front of a big red-brick fireplace. To let the trickle of amber liquor go down his throat, warming the guts of a man, making him mellow and talkative. Perhaps it would make him forget the storm. Yet it never had in the past, when he had tried being with others. No, he'd better not. Not today. Not while the clouds were so black, the sky so brooding.
"Sorry. Maybe some other time. Is that all right, Evans?”
“Why sure, if you say so. I thought—well, okay. So long."
Evans Carrel waved his hand, watching little Markov flash out the door, scurry across the gray street, run down the sidewalk.
"Funny codger," he muttered. "Can't understand him. Seems to be afraid, sometimes. Looks as though he expected a hobgoblin to jump up and make off with him."
HE SIGHED and went out to the car where Betty Stokes was making up her red mouth with lipstick, peering into the mirror she held in her hand, her lips pursed a little. She turned and looked at him, seeing his frown.
“I saw Anton in the store. I've been wondering about him."
"He's afraid of the rain,” she told him, snapping her compact shut and putting it in her handbag.
"The rain?” asked Evans blankly. "I've heard of guys being scared of lightning or loud thunder. Sort of childhood fixation. But rain!”
He drove through traffic with practiced case. He looked sideways at the girl.
"How do you know about it? I always thought he was a secretive guy. Never says much to me. That is, nothing about his personal life.”
"Oh, it was on a day like this. We got caught together in a regular downpour. We ducked into a doorway. He was shivering fit to kill. I thought he was sick. Then I saw his eyes. All white, they were. They rolled a little. His face was pale as new laundry."
Her shoulders shook. She burrowed down into the upholstery, closer to his warm side. She said, "I was sure scared. I thought he was having a fit. But he managed to tell me rain frightened him heaps. Something about a dream he'd had ever since he was a boy, or some such thing."
Evans Carrel drove through the night, his thoughts churning to the back-and-forth swish of the windshield wiper that cast splashing drops from the glass, flinging them aside in a frenzy of motion.
THE next Monday, Anton felt Evans' dark eyes fastening on him from time to time. When he would glance up, the big man always moved his eyes away. Finally he came and stood near Anton's desk.
"Say, Tony. I don't mean to pry, but—well, what I'm trying to get at is—ah, the rain. You and rain, I mean. You're afraid of it, aren't you?”
Anton felt a hand tighten on his stomach, knotting it. His lips went stiff, and the blood began to pump in his veins. Fear of ridicule made him say, "I don't see what business it is of yours, Evans. That is, if I am, it's my affair."
The big man's mouth drooped contritely. He managed a grin, shuffling his feet a little.
"I don't blame you, Anton. It isn't any of my business. But I was wondering if I could help you. I'd like to help you, Tony. I mean, you're a nice guy. I like you.”
Anton felt the hot surge of friendliness coming up within him. He flushed a bit on his pallid cheeks, ashamed.
"Sorry, Evans. This inhibition has been with me so long that I've grown used to it, but no one ever talked to me about it. Years ago in school, kids used to make fun of me. I guess you can understand that.”
"Sure can!” exclaimed Carrel heartily. "Frankly, I'm the sort of fellow who would have made fun of you, too, when I was a kid. I'm what you call an extrovert. Lots of laughter and parties, always showing the way I felt. But not now. The years make a difference. Make a man smarter. Teach him things."
He perched on the edge of the desk, swinging a pointed tan shoe. His wool stockings were ribbed, and his gray trousers were carefully creased.
"Look, Tony. What I'm driving at is this. I used to teach psychology in a jerkwater college you've never heard of. I even wrote a book on applied psychology. Even had it published before I caught wise that I'd never make a fortune that way. I took up the selling game instead, and the psych I know comes in handy.
"Suppose I were to cure you of your fear, Tony? I'd use applied psychology, and I know enough to make it safe. We'd examine that dream of yours under hypnosis, and bring it to the fore. Talk about it. Find out what makes it come. Once you know that, the cure is easy.”
Anton opened his eyes wide.
"Do you think it will work? Is it that simple?"
“Sure. Get at the subconscious. Find out what quirk in your past makes you dream. Fear is just a glandular reaction to a stimulus. Babies are born with only two fears, that of loud noise and of falling. Think how many other fears we acquire in life! And there's a reason for it, too. Earlier experiences teach us to beware of mad dogs, of a maniac with a gun, and so on. Somewhere along the line, you got that fear of rain. We have to learn what that was.”
Anton looked at his hands and shuddered. In the dream, those hands were tied, and rain was coming toward him. Yet it never touched him. Always the dream stopped at a certain point. It never went any further.
He looked up, saying, "But my dream has nothing to do with normal life, Evans. It's something fantastic, utterly unbelievable, as though an ancestral recollection was stuck in the memory passages of my brain and couldn't get where it belongs. I think I am reliving something that happened to a forebear of mine.”
"All right. So much the better. Then it can't possibly affect you!"
He slapped Anton on the shoulder encouragingly.
ANTON moved through his duties that day and the next with a flicker of hope burning brightly inside him. He went to the movies at night, and even felt so good that he went to a dance-hall and spent three hours dancing with a pretty redhead.
"Evans'll cure me, all right," he told himself, walking home in the dark, cool night, hands in his pockets, heels tapping boldly on the sidewalk. "A man like Evans Carrel knows what he's doing. A professor of psychology. Who would have thought it?"
The days came and went. Late one afternoon Evans stopped at his desk.
"I'm going to leave the day and the time to you, Tony. Betty would like to be in on it, though. She's interested in this sort of thing.”
"I don't mind," Anton said quickly.
"She has a cousin that works in a museum. She said he put her wise to a lot of superstitions about rain. She got me interested and I studied up myself."
“Study rain?” Anton was amazed.
"Say, you mean to tell me you've been fighting this thing all your life and you never thought of reading up about it?"
Anton lowered his head, shaking it. Now that Evans mentioned it, the thought numbed him. Why hadn't he done that? Even a moron would have had sense enough to do that! He looked up embarrassedly, asking, "What did you find out?”
Evans pushed his lower lip forward, frowning.
"Frankly, I didn't know there was so much on the subject. Rain-worship and all that sort of thing. Rain-belts. Rain-stones. Sacrifices to the rain gods. There's something about it in all types of legends: Mexican, Greek, Eddic, Indian.”
"Look," said Evans. "What I'm going to suggest may sound drastic, but I'd like to arrange a little drama. You say you think you are a sacrifice in your dream? Good. Then suppose we stage that sacrifice in reality. Try to summon rain, to show you it's all hocus-pocus and no earthly use at all."
"Can you do that?”
"As well as I know how. Betty is going to help me. She's uncovered a lot of stuff, too. About frogs—"
"They beat them with little rods," whispered Anton through suddenly bloodless lips. "They kill them by whipping them to death. It's horrible to hear them screeching in my dreams.”
EVANS looked uncomfortable, moving his neck inside his shirt-collar, and rubbing his hands together.
"Yeah, I know. But your dreams have to be duplicated. I'm going to have real live frogs there for a sacrifice. It isn't pleasant I know, but we have to be exact.”
Anton put a hand on his arm. "Evans, you don't have to go through with this. You aren't the type of man who would whip frogs and take any interest in it. Let's forget the whole thing."
"Not on your life. I'm going to cure you if it takes every frog in the county. You're going to be well or I'll know the reason why!"
THE following Saturday was one of those May days when the sky hangs pale blue and bright over a blooming Earth, when the air is warm with sunlight and fragrant with the perfumes of new flowers. Birds caroled in tree-branches above his head as Anton walked to the office passing a street peddler slowly pacing behind a creaking pushcart, singing softly to himself. Sunlight slipped through the ties in the elevated to warm Anton through his coat, flooding him with strength.
"This is the day," he said when he saw Evans.
He finished his work early, using his restlessness as energy. He went down the hall near a window and smoked two cigarettes, one after the other, while he stared out over the city. He thought jubilantly, this is the day! Tomorrow I will be a free man.
"Hey," yelped Betty, tugging on his arm. “Come out of it. You've been here an hour. We've looked all over for you.”
They would not hear his apologies, but each took an arm and tugged him with them toward the elevator. He caught a drift of perfume from Betty's maroon sweater, and the faint scent of tobacco from Evans' tweed jacket. Anton had never before thought of the pleasure in being alive and normal, of the smells and the tastes and the sights there were to enjoy.
He slipped easily into their riotous mood.
In Evans' big gray roadster he sat with an arm around Betty. Once he slid his eyes sideways at her, liking the clear white smoothness of her cheeks, the long lashes framing her cool gray eyes. Why, if Evans were right, if he did manage to cure him, he could find a girl like Betty for himself. Then the four of them could take long rides together. He had money saved up; he had never had any way to spend it, before. Always the rain discouraged him.
"It'll be a totally different life," he told them eagerly, his face coming alive, losing a little of its pallor and the lines etched in it by constant fright. "We'll go on picnics, and to the beach. Maybe Evans can even give me exercises to do so's I'll have muscles, too.”
Betty patted his hands, smiling at him.
"You'll be a new man, Tony. You wait. Evans has gone to a lot of fuss—"
"I know. I want to repay him, somehow!”
"Forget it," grinned Evans. "I'm curious about your taste in girls. I want to see you on a dance floor. That's why I'm doing it."
They laughed and the roads went by, and the car took corners and slid powerfully along a highway.
The engine sputtered and died in sight of a low white cottage that had rows of purple irises along one wall. A slate-stone terrace lay behind the cottage, giving the appearance of a flat sea-anchor to the trim house. Blue shutters and a blue door with brightly gleaming brass knocker and doorknob added gaiety to the white front.
"Doggone," muttered Evans with a rueful chuckle, working the choke and starter. "All week I've been meaning to have this fixed. Now of all days it acts up."
"There's the cottage, Evans," said Betty. "It doesn't make any difference. We're practically in front of it."
Evans said, "I'll have a mechanic come and pick it up," as he got out of the car and led them toward the house. Jiggling a key-ring, he unlocked the door and threw it open.
"Come on in and I'll rustle up a drink."
ANTON came to a dead stop in the doorway of the living-room, two steps above it. The furniture had been removed. On the bare boards of the waxed floor were scattered grains of sand, mixed with fiber rugs in exotic designs of red and black and yellow.
Against the walls leaned bamboo poles latched together with leather thongs. A table native to the South Seas stood in the center of the room. Triangular stones lay on its wooden top, blending their flat pallor with the red and purple hues of a long belt. A floor-lamp and an easy-chair rested near the table.
Anton swung around in amazement at a grinning Evans.
"You—where'd you get all this stuff?”
"That cousin of Betty's. She convinced him that she needed it, so he let her borrow it.”
Betty picked up the pointed stones and the red-purple belt.
"These are real rain-stones and rain-belt. They used to be part of rain ceremonials somewhere. I forgot the name of the place, though Jimmy told me.”
"What'd I say?" asked Evans. "Said there was a lot of this stuff about rain you didn't know. Zeus is a rain-god in Greek mythology. God of the heavens, known as the 'cloud gatherer.' The expression 'Zeus rains' was a popular one. They had their rites on mountain tops to get nearer the home of the gods."
WHILE he talked, Evans went back and forth, from kitchen to living-room, carrying jars and buckets of earth, and pitchers filled with water.
"In Crete they worshiped on Mounts Ida and Dikte. In Thessaly, on Olympus. Then there's the Danaid legend where fifty dames are condemned to fill a bottomless pit with leaking pitchers for their sin of murder. They used those bottomless jars in their magic. To let the water soak from them into the earth. Sympathetic magic, you know. Imitating the real thing to induce it to happen.”
"But—but do we want it to rain?” wondered Anton.
"Of course not. But I'm prepared for anything you can think of in that dream of yours. I want to duplicate it, to show you that the mumbo-jumbo your subconscious has thought up is so much hogwash!"
Betty, pushed Anton into a chair, chuckling, "You sit down, Tony. Let Evans and I get everything ready. We want you to be completely at your ease."
Evans laughed, "He has the easiest job I ever heard of. All he has to do is fall asleep."
Anton felt the easy-chair clutch him. He leaned his head against the backrest. A feeling of ease flooded his veins and limbs. He was in the hands of friends who were ready to cure him. He smiled.
Evans turned on the big flood-lamp as Betty pulled down the Venetian blinds, and pinned strips of dark cloth across them. The room was dark, except for the single beam of whiteness glaring from the lamp, into his open eyes. Evans adjusted a fan across the flat front of the lamp. He clicked something.
The beam of light winked as the fan slowly rotated, cutting off the glare, letting it slip through its openings in patterns of white after darkness. Dot and dash, dash and dot, light and darkness, darkness and light.
The alternation of white and black tired his eyes. Blinking them, he felt languorous, tired.
"Look up at the light, Tony. Let it get inside your head. Ah, that's it. Makes you sleepy, doesn't it?"
"Yes, you're tired, tired. So why not sleep. Sleep, sleep . . . you want to sleep, So why not? You are safe, here with us, where nothing can harm you, so sleep, sleep. . . ."
Blinky light. Murmuring voice. Slipping senses.
"Sleep, sleep, sleep. . . .”
Eyes closing, shutting out the world.
From a distance a dull voice muttered, "Sleep, sleep. . . ."
NO, not quite nothingness. There was something here. He could see it flickering, as though he stood in a long tunnel. It was red, and it shot up toward a vast ceiling. Something was moving in front of the redness, and he found that he could see a bit clearer.
The redness shining in the night was a huge fire. He lay in a cave, and his legs and wrists were bound, and there was the sweat of terror on his forehead. From where he reclined on his side, with his face turned toward the entrance of the cave, he could see the serpent priestess dancing around the scarlet flames.
A greenish reptile twisted and writhed in her white arms. Flickering tongues of crimson mimicked it behind the priestess' dancing body. The supple twist of her long white legs, and the rippling of her upheld arms formed a sinuous pattern that blended with the writhings of the snake and the dancings of the flames. Everything was distorted as the rain distorted vision. Even the music from the hide drums in the shadows lost rhythm, pounded and beat in eerie tempo. Behind the dancer, a row of young girls held their arms aloft and let them ripple up and down.
The priestess with the flowing black hair lifted one white foot after another, stepping as though on glowing coals, foot bent gracefully at the ankle: advancing, then retreating. In her long-nailed hands she held a purple jar, shaped like a gigantic raindrop. In the red glow of the firelight, three girls weaved toward her. They wore long, flowing robes: the first was clad in red, the seeing all in white. The third was garbed in blue, and the last came dressed in a spotted tunic, for she was the fog and the rain creeping and dripping among the branches and the leaves of trees.
In their hands the girls bore clumps of earth. From the purple, raindrop pitcher the priestess poured water that glistened like blood in the reflection of the fire. The water muddied the earth that the acolytes held in their palms, causing it to slop over and drop toward the ground.
Seeing that, the watcher in the cave writhed and bent in frantic efforts to escape. He knew what was coming; knew and dreaded it with all the horror that frightened his muscles and congealed his flesh. They would be approaching him, now; him and the girl who was to be the other sacrifice.
He saw them, big blobs of blackness mounting on slogging footsteps, coming up the path. Like silent shadows, they drew nearer, only the harsh breathing in their throats signaling their presence.
Hands closed on him, lifting. He shrieked, and his keening despair rang in the cave. In those hands he could not struggle. They were too powerful, too used to handling fright-maddened beings.
Toward the fire they bore him, and beyond it, where an altar of stained stone was set. Rusted chains clanked dismally as they were raised and bound about him. His rolling eyes saw the sky, dark and sullen.
To one side something white flashed: the girl. Her long, flaxen hair swam in the breeze. Her legs and arms were in supple motion, untiring in their frantic struggles. She was flung down beside him. He could hear the sob in her raw throat. Her naked shoulder shook against his.
Now the dancers were still, breathless. The priestess and her acolytes were showering the fire with water, making it hiss and splutter.
Soon the sacrifices would be left alone to the rain-god. Already the people were withdrawing on careful feet, stooping low. They cast frightened glances at the forms on the stone altar; he could see the whites of their eyes, and the quiver of shoulders when someone shuddered.
The fire was out. The priestess brought forward the frogs and laid them, bound with withes, across the altar. In her right hand she grasped a bundle of needle-like rods. Slowly she began to pound on the frogs. .
The priestess screamed above the bellowing of the dying frogs. She lifted her face toward the sky and shrieked again.
Thunder rolled in sonorous waves across the brooding sky.
A jagged streak of whiteness rippled from the clouds, flashing the gloom into momentary day.
The rods were dyed in red, rising and falling, flipping gruesome drops across the altar. The frogs were still, now, and quiet.
A blast of thunder rocked the earth so that even the stone altar quaked! It was a stentorian blast of sheer power that deafened all who heard it.
The rain was coming down.
Anton screamed. . . .
ANTON opened his eyes.
A white witch stood in the shadows before him, behind a glowing fire, with a serpent twisted about her smooth shoulders. Her shadow reached to his feet, and in the lifting flame of the fire the priestess loomed enormous.
A hand tightened on his arm, keeping him frozen in his chair while it whispered, "It's Betty. Ssshh!"
The white woman was pouring water that glistened like blood in the red light of the fire onto parched earth in a bowl. To one side frogs were croaking where they lay tied across a stone altar.
"What is she doing?” croaked Anton.
"Duplicating your dream. She is doing everything the priestess did. You told us everything that happened. You answered questions I asked, about words and movements of the ritual.”
"Oh. But my dream ended as it always did, didn't it? The rain never got to me. It didn't touch me. But I was afraid of it.”
Evans scowled, whispering, "I don't know. Your dream did stop at that point. We want to see if anything will happen if we repeat the rite."
Anton looked at Betty, recognizing her in her outlandish costume. This was all kind of silly, he thought. When I'm awake, hard reality says this is nonsense. He was swiftly losing the stark fear that haunted his dream.
He chuckled, "I hope it works."
"Ssssh. Just watch."
Anton had to admit that Betty had learned her part well, listening to him gibber in his sleep. She even danced like that other priestess, with the same rippling beat to her arms and legs, and with the identical twisting sinuousity of torso. Now the parched earth was flooded with water, and she was placing the frogs across the altar.
She was whipping them, and the frogs were crying.
The rods were red. Anton found that his palms were aching where his fists were clenched so tightly that he was driving his fingernails into his palms. Across the fire, Betty fastened her fathomless eyes on him. She was saying something in the voice of the dream priestess. He remembered it now. It was the ritual saying that always preceded her screams.
Nothing happened. Cowering in his chair, unable to believe his own ears, Anton kept staring at Betty across the fire and licking his lips with a dry tongue.
No noise. No thunder.
No pounding of rain on roof or shingled walls.
Evans clicked the lights on. He stood grinning in a corner of the room. Betty was sweeping a robe about herself, brushing back a lock of her hair. Anton thought she looked a little dazed, but his eyes saw the stuffed serpent just then and he laughed.
"It's all over, it's all over,” he babbled between peals of mirth. "And nothing happened. Nothing at all."
He ran to the windows and ripped away the shades, lifting the blinds. A burst of yellow sunlight beat in at him, warming face and arm and chest. Swinging around, he held out his arms.
He shouted, “I'm free! I'm free!”
Evans was pounding his back. Betty laughed and kissed his cheek, but kept her eyes carefully turned from his.
"You don't know what this means to me. You can't possibly realize, not possibly. Only a blind man given his sight could know. All my life. That dream! Never stopping. Afraid every moment that it was going to rain.”
Evans poured cocktails, shouting gleefully. "This is a celebration that's going to be a celebration. What'll we do tonight, Tony? Can you get him a girl, Betty? How's about dancing somewhere? The treat's on me.”
"Oh, no. On me!" crowed Anton, slapping his chest and taking the drink. "I'm going to spend some of that money I've been making. I want to enjoy it. I even," he flushed a little, "put a hundred dollars in my mattress, thinking that if I were cured, I'd want to celebrate with you."
They drank and talked. Anton looked at Betty and said, "You sounded just like the priestess. And those words you spoke before you yelled! Marvelous. Exact intonations and accent.”
Evans chuckled, "Betty used to be in amateur theatricals."
Betty brushed a lock of hair again, moving her hand restlessly, as though she were trying to make up her mind to say something. Her eyes were big, and a little frightened.
"I—I didn't say those words. I mean, I don't remember. It was as though somebody else said them.”
“Well, of course,” shouted Evans. "You were acting your part so well, you lost all connection with your real identity. Every good actress has had moments like that."
Betty smiled, then laughed.
"I didn't think of that. Aren't I silly?"
"You're wonderful,” Anton said. “You've helped make a new man of me."
He went to the window and opened it, stood breathing in the fragrance of the grass pinks near the house. He grinned up at the pale blue sky that was dappled with fleecy clouds.
"Let it rain!” he shouted. "I'm not afraid any more. I've seen my dream come alive, and nothing happened."
He drank a little more, then grinned at them. "I have to go home and dress."
"Wait a while," said Evans. "The mechanic isn't back with the car yet. It's three miles to the railroad station."
"That's a good walk. It will do me good. Honest, I'm so glad to be alive that I'll enjoy that walk more than I can tell you."
Betty laughed, "I'm tempted to go along just so that I can watch you, Tony. I've never seen anybody so happy."
"No, no. You stay with Evans. I'll meet you at the office corner at eight. Tonight is our night to celebrate. The three of us."
HE WAVED goodbye, seeing them standing in the doorway, Evans with his arm around Betty's shoulder as she twirled a glass in her left hand. Behind them the hall light made bronze glimmerings in the shadows. Evans' coat blew aside momentarily in the warm May breeze.
Anton danced, walking along the road. The smile on his lips has come to stay. There was no fear now to put its paralyzing hand on his heart. He glanced around at the fields, at green grass swaying slightly, at trees with their freshly green leaves. This was life all around him, life that he could enjoy to the full. He thought for an instant of the grass and the flowers and how they ate just as humans ate. He wondered if they enjoyed their food as he was going to enjoy his from now on. Their food was nitrogen, oxygen and other chemicals.
He must study up on things like that, he thought. Now that his days and nights belonged to him and not to his fear, he would have plenty of time. It would make interesting reading to learn how the sciences helped the earth. He recalled reading something about the fact that the human body was just a lot of chemicals, and mostly water.
He took off his dark hat and let the wind ruffle his hair. He twisted the hat in his hands, and grinned, looking down at it. No more dark hats and dark clothes for him!
"I'm going to get a snappy sports jacket, with checks in it,” he told himself. “And light tan slacks, and brown-and-white saddle shoes, with thick rubber soles. From now on, I'm going to be a sport. Why—I'm just beginning to live!”
There was a shadow on the ground before him. Startled, he looked up. A black cloud had come up out of nowhere, obscuring the sun. Odd, he hadn't noticed it before. But why think about a dark cloud?
He went on gaily, whistling a tune he had danced to at the dance hall the other night. No need to be afraid of a dark cloud!
The shadows increased. They lay across meadow and hill, trees and grass and wild flowers. Anton checked his stride. He was halfway from Evans' cottage to the station. A mile and a half, either way. He looked around, but there were only open fields on all sides of him. There was no shelter here from the rain.
And it looked like rain all right.
Anton lifted his chin, bit at his lips to prevent its quivering, saying in a choked voice, “Come on, rain. I'm not afraid of you, any more.”
He started to swagger down the road, but his heart thumped and pounded in his chest.
A blast of thunder rocked the earth; made it shudder wildly, so that Anton felt the ground move beneath his feet.
For one instant he stood with feet locked to the dusty road. Then he whimpered,"I—I—It was like the blast that comes in my dreams! What comes after that, when the rains come down—I—I don't know!”
HE licked his lips, and ran. His feet pounded on the road, raising dry dust that choked him. The day was hushed after that stentorian clap of thunder. It lay still, waiting. Over everything a pall of darkness came down, like a blanket, smothering.
The earth was black with false night. Anton could hardly see where he put his feet, but he kept on running. He ran madly. It was going to rain, any moment now. And there was no shelter.
At first there was only a drop or two. Anton felt them on his hands and face. They came faster and faster while he ran, beating about him, drumming down on the earth road. They were stinging him, he realized, like acid. He shook drops of water from his hands, moaning to himself.
His clothes were sodden, heavy with wet. Feverishly he ripped coat and shirt loose, dropped his trousers. It will be easier running, he thought.
The rain hurt. It dug and ate at his flesh. It was as though it were eating him.
He looked at his hand, lifting it. In the darkness it was hard to see, but what he saw wrenched a scream of frozen horror from his lungs.
His hand was shapeless!
No longer did his hand have fingers or a thumb. It was just a lump, like dough beaten into a formless ball. He looked at his chest, saw it, too, was changing shape.
And his feet! Good God, his feet!
They were not feet any longer. Just stubs where his ankles should be, stubs on which he thumped along, maniacally. He knew, now. He knew what happened after the burst of titanic thunder. The rain came to eat its sacrifices. It came and swept them away, washed them into the ground, let the ground absorb the chemicals in their bodies so the ground would be fertile!
He caught sight of the railroad station, but he could not run any more. It seemed that there was a sort of shack, a small house of some sort a little distance away from him, but he could not be certain.
Anyhow, he had neither arms nor legs now with which to crawl. He would have to lie here and accept what the rain did to him.
Once he gave a little moan, but after that he was silent. Soon there was nothing there to make a noise.
The disappearance of Anton Markov was rather sensational for a few days. Betty and Evans found themselves in the limelight, and there was some ugly talk, but nothing was ever proved.
There was talk of another kind near the little railroad station where Mike Murphy lived. He had a shack with a row of roses a few feet from the hut. That year the roses bloomed in red and pink and white magnificence.
Everybody asked Mike how he did it.
He was too poor to buy fertilizer.
If you are interested in other short stories by Gardner F Fox, ten of them have been collected in The Return of Dargoll. Stories are illustrated in scratchboard by Kurt Brugel. Copies can be purchased from the link below.