The summer we lived with Dad, there was a neighbor whose voice we never heard. We’d see him walking through the woods, fingers brushing the bark of trees. Or rustling the leaves of bushes, collecting berries in a paper sack. Sometime he crouched in the creek bed and picked red pebbles from the cool water.
He moved slow. Always quiet. And often stopped as if listening to things we couldn’t hear, like roots growing deep beneath him. The crack of a bird’s egg in a high-up nest.
Once we drove by him on the gravel road near our house. He stepped into the ditch and waited for us to pass. Dad raised two fingers from the steering wheel and the man lifted his hand to his forehead. Waving hello or shading his eyes from the sun, we couldn’t tell.
“The Rainpainter,” Dad said, watching the rearview mirror.
When we asked what he meant, he told us to wait.
We stayed up late that night making up stories. The Rainpainter standing beneath a heavy sky, wetting his brush with storm water. Slashing at a canvas until something evil took shape. We listened with our ears pressed against the window for some promise of rain to break loose from the sky, some spark to waken the dark world. And if it had, we’d have been afraid to open our eyes, afraid the stories we told were true.
The next morning, he walked past our house carrying a stack of folded sheets.
“What’s he doing?” we said.
“Getting ready for the rain,” Dad said.
Dad had been checking the weather every night after calling Mom behind a closed door. We’d lie on the floor outside his room and listen as he begged Mom for just a few more days.
When the storm came, Dad called in sick to work. With the first tinks of rain on the roof, he told us to hurry.
We followed him through woods that were thick with the smell of rain. The air had cooled. We reached out our hands and felt the trees’ bark as we ran.
We didn’t understand when Dad stopped and pointed to the canopy of the woods.
“Sheets,” he said.
We ran in circles beneath sheets that were hung between branches so high above us. Our arms outstretched, palms catching all different colors. The strange rain dripped from our hair and down our faces. Reds and blues and purples. We opened our mouths and tasted it.
And we understood.
Some sheets were heavy with the weight of picked berries. Others colored with dye made from the dust of crushed creek pebbles.
When the rain lightened, our clothes were stained. Our tongues and teeth carnival-colored. We were laughing. Dad stood far away, watching silently.
The next morning we slipped back into the stained clothes we had begged him not to wash. And when Mom picked us up she shook her head.
“Couldn’t even keep them clean,” she said, before taking us away forever.