Blood For Rain
Praise be to Allah, to whom belongs all that in heaven and earth. Praise be to Him, who is All-gracious and All-knowing of His hidden things. Praise, therefore, be to Him who makes the histories of the past a lesson unto the present. May He weave through me the thread of a tale I wish to tell, and may He look favorably on my attempt. Listen closely, and listen well.
The scorching, shifting sands do not care for where they blow, or how they treat those who dwell in it. They cling to folds of hijabs, locks of hair, soles of sandals, whites of eyes. One old man had his eyes spared, bound as they were behind cloth. Behind him stood the people he led. Though he could not see he could hear, and he heard not a word from them. Not even a draw of breath, for they held it. Though he could not see he could think, and he knew none of them smiled. This was the day they all dreaded, the day of Choosing. The old man stood on the edge of the highest dune, held steady by his only daughter Soraya. Without her aid he drew the bow, for the duty rested on him alone to loose the arrow upon the village below. His hands shook. Still, he shot. Then he ripped the cloth from his face to see who he had sentenced to death. He let out a moan, like one wounded, and sank to his knees. The arrow struck through the tip of a tent, as it should. His tent.
Beside him, Soraya paled.
Her father’s throat was dry, drier than on the hottest, longest day of the year. “The family who receives the arrow must sacrifice the youngest to Vritra.”
Soraya balled her hand into a fist. A fist so tight that her nails drew blood from her palm. “You will throw my son—your grandson, your heir—into the jaws of that beast?”
The old man flinched. “Do not speak ill of the one who brings us rain. This is the law we must follow. The law we have always followed.”
“Blood for rain,” Soraya said, and bitterness welled on her tongue.
For as long as even the oldest, most wizened village elder could remember, Vritra had gripped the tribe tight with fear, under the shadow of his wings and the gape of his jaws, feasting on the flesh of young innocents. Living in scorching, shifting sands demanded frequent barter. Even the leader and his family could not escape this exchange, this endless cycle of blood for rain.
Soraya rose on shaking feet, pulling her hijab tighter over her head, and said, “If it must be done, then let me go.”
The village leader turned to face her, mirroring the shock of his people, and before he could protest, Soraya set her jaw and went on, “I can take my son’s place—I am young enough.” Despite her shaking, she said, “I am not afraid to die, if it means letting the baby live.” And despite her aching heart, she smiled. “I will not run away this time, father.”
At this, he pulled his daughter in close, drowning his sobs into the folds of her hijab.
Now she would be remembered for her bravery; for much of her life she was known for her stubbornness. Like the sands, Soraya could never keep still, always running away from her father and her responsibilities, namely to get married and settled down, and most of all away from her village, away from the suffering. Duty prevailed, anchoring her from flights of fancy, and she found joy in having a child. That joy must come to an end, a bloody end, as her bravery and fate had dictated.
Soraya only had the rest of the day to hold her son close in her arms, lulling him to sleep, until the time came to take his place in satisfying Vritra’s hunger once the sun had set. In exchange for the baby she lowered into the crib, she received a knife. She made her way to the temple alone, already mourned by the people she had left behind. The red hue of a desert sunset, though softer and cooler than the sun earlier that day, seemed to mock her. Every step was a struggle, an inward scream to turn back. She was no longer a girl, but a woman, and she would not run away–that much she had promised to her loved ones, and to herself.
The temple stood at the edge of a dried river, a lone pinnacle of death and despair. Stepping inside, she prostrated herself on the dais, awaiting her fate. She found the sand a shade too red. From the sunset, perhaps, or from the spilled blood of past sacrifices. She shuddered.
A shadow blotted the dying sun. Vritra dove into the temple, his wings whipping up the sand and his claws scraping over stone. She heard him hiss, smelled his foul breath. She kept her head down, biting back a tremor of fear. Drawing the knife from her hijab, she leveled the blade to her chest. Like every unfortunate soul before her, she could turn this on herself, sparing her the pain of being eaten alive. Vritra liked his meat fresh.
He waited, his head reared high over her, like a cobra coiling back to strike.
Something within her snapped. She did not know why, and she could not put a single name to it. Whatever it was, it made her move. The knife flew–not through her own chest, but into his open mouth. So sudden and quick was her strike, and against everything he had expected, Vritra took the blow. He reeled back screeching, his frills standing rigid with anger. Soraya chose life. She chose to fight.
Jumping clear of the bloody jaws, she rolled into the dust. Vritra lunged after her, bent on snapping up his prey. Blade met scales. Sparks flew. The dragon threw himself at the entrance, blocking her only way out. Killing him would set her free.
She had caught Vritra off guard; he would not let her succeed again. Soraya saw no opening, no cracks in the armor. Clad from head to tail in scales, Vritra brushed off her strikes like flies. She tried to aim for his wings, those fragile leathery sails, but Vritra was not stupid. He tucked in his wings and lashed with his tail, keeping her out of reach.
Her mind raced for a new approach, another plan of attack. She stopped running, away from the blood-red sand to crouching low on the dais. Vritra bore down on her, a venomous storm. She angled the knife away, offering her arm elbow first. Vritra seized the bait. The force of his teeth pierced her arm straight through. She cried out in pain, but would not give in or pull away. And as he crunched into her flesh, the knife drove through the roof of his mouth. Soraya pushed up with all her might, drawing in the firm ground beneath her feet as leverage and the sheer weight of her foe. The whole knife, even the hilt, sunk through.
Vritra let loose a gurgled scream, one choked off by blood spilling down his throat. Soraya wrenched herself free. She scrambled back, ducking the sweep of his tail by a hair as he thrashed in his death throes. Then the great, evil dragon stilled. Vritra was no more.
Death came to him in more blood he could ever want. Not Soraya’s, but his own.
She stood there, trembling, petrified in an agonized daze. Then her knees buckled, and she slumped against the wall clutching her broken, useless arm.
Suddenly, and strangely, something wafted from Vritra’s open maw. Not something—someone. A spirit, with the semblance of a girl.
“Who…who are you?” Soraya breathed.
The very question seemed to wound it. “You ask because your people have forgotten,” it murmured. “I am Meena, the djinn of gentle rain and river. Years ago my brother Aandhee had fought to rescue me. He raged and roiled, but to no avail. His tempest would have swept your entire village away. His waves would have plunged your people into its depths. My brother, the djinn of wild storm and sea, had no choice but to recede and mourn, waiting for a brave soul to fight in his stead for my return.”
“The rain from Vritra…no, from you-”
“For every life sacrificed, tears have been shed. Now I cry tears of joy, for the cycle of has been broken. You, Soraya, had that courage to free me from the clutches of Vritra.” Meena cast her solemn gaze on the young woman’s wound. “Even with all my power, I cannot cure you of Vritra’s venom. I am sorry.”
A pang of sorrow hurt more than the loss of blood killing her. There was still so much to do, so much she had not done for her family, for her people.
“Oh Soraya, you have done so much here,” Meena said. “Allah may not have given you much time on earth, but in him you will find peace and joy knowing that your people will prosper with Vritra vanquished.”
Soraya’s vision blurred. Whether from tears or death’s shroud, she did not know. “My son…will he remember me?”
“Always,” Meena assured her. “He will grow up strong and live long. With every day I bring your village rain, he will look up and remember.”
That was enough. “Thank you.”
“I will ease your journey to Allah…that much I can do for you.”
Soraya’s eyes fluttered shut, easing into a world of eternal sleep.
Our tale has ended, but it will not be forgotten. Ah, here comes the rain. Excuse me while I find a place to watch it from inside. I am not young anymore; being in the rain for too long is bad for my aching bones, but you are free to stand in it for as long as you like. Cool and soft, is it not? Praise be to Allah for the gift of rain, and praise be unto Him for the gift of stories. I am truly blessed to spend my life sharing and remembering. I am proud to call Soraya my mother.