Weathermaker (an excerpt)

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(an excerpt)

By Vonnie Winslow Crist

May glanced over her shoulder at the closed door. She tipped her head in the direction of the heat vent and listened for the muffled sound of her parents' voices. She smiled. They were still downstairs in the kitchen. Confident that she wouldn't be bothered, May stretched out on her stomach and squirmed under Papa Chang's bed. 

The space under the box-spring was only about twelve inches high, so May was thankful her ancestors had been slender and small-boned. Even at age twenty, she was still able to easily fit under the bed. She clicked on a small flashlight and stuck it between her teeth, which freed her hands to search for the loose floorboard. She slid her palms along the dusty oak floor and crawled toward the head of the bed. May sneezed twice, dropping the light both times.

Frustrated, she took the flashlight out of her mouth, shined it on the floor. "Where are you?" she muttered as she ran a fingernail along the joint where one piece of flooring abutted another. She sighed. There was no hint of a secret compartment. She ran a fingernail around a second board. Nothing. She sneezed again. The flashlight dimmed slightly.

"I know you're..." Before May could finish her sentence, she felt the third floorboard from the wall lift slightly as her fingernails traced its edge. "Yes!" May pried the board up, reached inside the small wooden compartment attached to the side of a support beam. She didn't know if Papa Chang had built the secret box above the first-floor ceiling and below his bedroom's floorboards, but as a child, she'd seen him tuck a book swaddled in red fabric in it several times.

"Why do you hide the book?" May had inquired the first time she'd caught her grandfather concealing the silk-wrapped bundle.

"Because it's magical," Papa Chang had answered with a wink.

"Can I read it, too?" she'd begged.

"Not yet." Papa Chang had patted her head. "It's written in Chinese, though I've made some notes in English. When it's your turn to take care of the dragon, then you may read it."

"But I help you, now," she'd reminded her grandfather.

"Yes, but that's not the same. When I'm no longer able to honor Lung, then you must do so." Papa Chang had taken her hands in his, looked into her dark eyes, and added, "No one else in this family believes except for you and me, so it is up to us. When I am gone, the book is yours."

Then, he'd stood up and brushed the dust from his knees. "But tell no one about the book. Not your mother or father. Not your brother. Not even your friends. Promise me."

"I promise," May had declared, and she'd kept her word.

"And I'll keep my word tonight," she told Papa Chang's spirit as she skinched out from under the bed.

Six months had passed since her grandfather's heart attack, six months had gone by since anyone had visited the dragon, and their county had been six months without a drop of rain. May worried that her shirking of dragon-duty was responsible for the drought. But certain the solution could be found in Papa Chang's book, she sat cross-legged and undid the wrappings.

Her fingers tingled when they touched its dark leather binding. The leather was ridged in a diamond-like pattern and softer than she thought it would be. When she opened the cover, she saw that the volume was indeed written in Chinese. The characters were small and exquisitely rendered in black ink. As she flipped through the pages, she spotted her grandfather's notes. May hoped the words she needed were translated.

She leaned against a bed post, turned back to the beginning, and began scanning the pages one by one. When she located Papa Chang's translations, she read them. Often, her grandfather had begun to translate a section, then stopped mid-sentence as if whatever he'd been looking for wasn't there. And much of what was in English seemed mundane. But every now and again there'd be something interesting: "Deaf dragons are kiao-lung. Dragons who can hear arekioh-lung." or "Dragons are fond of roasted swallows."

She'd leafed through nearly half of the book when she finally found what she was searching for: "Supplications and Deals with Dragons." The fourth translated supplication was the one she needed. May marked the page with a couple of loose red threads from the silk cloth, then stuck the book and flashlight into her waiting backpack.

After sneaking out of Papa Chang's old bedroom, May jogged down the stairs and strolled into the kitchen. Her father was reading the paper at the table and her mother was putting the finishing touches on a casserole for the next night's dinner. May went to the refrigerator, took out the milk, and poured a quart of the cold liquid into a glass jar.

Her father lowered the paper. "It's been months since your grandfather wasted milk on his imaginary dragon. Why are you bothering to go down to the pond tonight?"

"I promised I would..."

The rest of "Weathermaker" can be read in Vonnie Winslow Crist's award-winning story collection, "The Greener Forest."

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