Four years ago after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, I wrote this fiction story about a girl who had never felt the rain, living in a post-apocalyptic underground where people occupied themselves primarily in a virtual world.
Then this morning I read a true story about a child who, because of California’s drought, had never felt the rain. I was astounded. When I wrote the story, I had no idea that its poignant backstory of a child who had never felt the rain, would come true –so soon, in my life, and in the place that I call home.
She Has Never Felt the Rain
by Bay Sweetwater
The old man beckons her to come forward, the small girl twirling her hair and holding onto her mother’s hand a dozen or so spaces behind him in the line. She points her tiny finger at her chest and mouths “me?” in disbelief. Her eyes are wide; she chews her lower lip. He nods. The girl takes a quick breath and turns questioning eyes to her mother. “Go ahead, then,” the mother says. “You know Mr. Sanders. Maybe you’ll get your chance today.”
The pale redheaded four-year-old runs up to the old man, the way she runs no matter where she goes, too full of hope and eagerness to waste time walking. She balls her fish against her mouth, standing on one leg, her other leg bent slightly with her foot nervously tapping the ground behind her, and gazes up at him.
The old man smiles and holds his ticket out to her, then bends down and whispers into her ear, “Tell me all about it tomorrow, huh?” She shakes her head up and down, too excited to speak. The man turns to me as I consult the roster for today. “She has never felt the rain,” he explains. I nod. He steps out of the line.
It is almost time. I step forward in front of the line to address the hopeful faces. “Good morning,” I begin. “I am the Window Guardian. I know you have all been waiting since early morning, and we are almost ready to begin. Most of you are familiar with the procedure, but I’ll explain it for anyone who doesn’t. At exactly 10 o’clock, five minutes from now, I will receive the report from EnviroCentral, which will inform us whether or not an opening of the Window is authorized, and if so, for how long. If an opening is permitted, each of you who won the lottery for today will be allowed two minutes to climb up to the platform, and stand outside. We can only allow one person at a time for security and safety reasons. The wind has been blowing north, away from our compound, so the radiation levels here have been dropping, and radiation in the air has also been reduced by recent rains. So the chances look good. One moment now while I receive the report . . .”
How well I understand why the old man gave the child his ticket. Many of us had so many precious times outside before the disaster – we walked in the hills, sipped coffee in outdoor patios, swam in the oceans, hardly thinking about it at the time. No more. The radiation has made all of that impossible and will continue to do so for the next one thousand years.
We live underground now, in massive warrens, dimly lit and poorly heated to conserve the scarce power, most of which goes to run the virtual world of Genesis where we live the majority of our lives now.
But the eager girl with the pale face and the long silky hair has never been outside. She was born in our warren. She has never felt the rain. In her short three or four years, she has lived most of her days within the virtual world of Genesis. Her school is virtual, her playmates are avatars, and her homework is online. She takes meals, baths, and organized exercise in the warren, but that is about all the time she spends in our real world here. The underground tunnels and rooms are too cramped, dim, and lifeless to house the spirit of a young child. When her mother says, “Go outside and play,” she means–all she can mean–is to log into the bright vitual world of Genesis.
For ten generations to come, maybe more, Genesis will be their world, except for the Window and the darkened tunnels of the Warren. The Old World, as it is already being called, is secondary, and will eventually be forgotten. The real and virtual worlds are slowly, inexorably, changing places.
The old man pats the girl on her shoulder as he leaves the line, casting a wistful look back toward the Window in the ceiling. Then he turns and walks back down the tunnel. The mother calls out after him, “You are a warmhearted angel, Benjamin.” He turns, gives her a little salute and smiles, then slowly, haltingly, resumes his walk into darkness.
The Enviro report is coming in now, and I study the numbers marching across my screen. Yes! I am authorized to open the window for exactly 10 minutes today. A quick calculation: 10 minutes, two minutes per person . . . so five people will be allowed to feel daylight on their skin, touch the rain, sniff the air, see the struggline trees that have managed to survive. I gesture a thumbs-up to the waiting line.
Cheers erupt, and I begin to collect the tickets from the first five people in line, waving the others away, trying not to notice the disappointment in their faces. Two more of the five selected people give their tickets to the little girl. She has never touched the rain. She will have her chance today, her one chance. Who knows when in her lifetime–or even if–her name will ever come up in the Window lottery again?
She tells me her name is Jane. Jane. “Well, Jane,” I say, “I am going to open the Window now. Just climb up these stairs and stand up on the little platform at the top. The light will feel warm, and it may move a little over your skin. Don’t be afraid; that’s what real light does. You have three tickets, so you will have 6 whole minutes to see the daylight, breathe the outside air, feel the rain on your face, watch the clouds and trees, with nothing at all between you and them. I’ll be right behind you if you need anything.”
Jane clenches her little fists and swallows, then turns back and waves at her mother. “Are you ready?” I ask. Eyes wide, she bobs her head up and down, like a duck on water that she’ll probably never see. I push the button on the control board, and the Window slowly, gently, miraculously opens. Jane doesn’t move for a full five seconds, then she races up the stairs and stands up on the platform, leaning out into the world. Rain falls on her face, and she reaches up in wonder to touch the drops.