Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Flood

May there be timely rains
And bountiful harvests
May all medicines be effective
And wholesome prayers bear fruit
--Shantideva, from The Way of the Bodhisattva

August 3

The rain came in the night, falling in the darkness as we lay to sleep. It was gentle as it began, pattering soft against the sheet of greenhouse plastic lain over our earthen roof. We woke first an hour before midnight to the sound of a steady drip in the center of the room. Looking to the northern wall, yellow-brown mud ran down in a stream behind the stovepipe, gravelly mud-bricks laid bare beneath the disappearing plaster. The rain was pouring now, harder than I had ever seen it in this desert place. Dressing quickly we climbed the ladder and drained the water from the lake that had gathered, replacing the plastic as quickly as we could, anchoring the edges with branches and rocks. 

The next time the drips had increased to five, all four walls showing wetness along their upper edges. Dressing again, this time in sodden clothes, we went out into the deluge. Now the water overflowed the edges of the plastic, running down beneath it and soaking into the roof. I left footprints in the mud as I moved over it. Returning inside a pool of water had formed beneath the stove, running in from the weakened place beneath the drain spout as we poured. We emptied and replaced pots, mopped up what water we could with dampened rags, and lay down again. For some hours I didn’t sleep, listening to the rain-sound. The fear I felt I learned from the people who know this place, and have seen the waters swell.  

The last time we woke it was just before dawn. The rain had slackened to a mist, but the sound of the stream had increased, roaring, a chorus of tumbling rocks. From the house, it sounded like a falls. Dumping water once more we returned inside and held each other, waiting for the light. 

We began the walk down towards Tar early in the morning, under clearing skies. The first stream crossing was difficult, making a passage over wide-spaced boulders that had once stood scattered in a meadow. I couldn’t make the second crossing (though Jason did, leaping a wide gap from wet stone to stone); I waded, planting a length of branch downstream with each step, thigh-deep in freezing, swirling water. On the other side we sat together, looking down the valley. From cliff face to cliff face the stream filled the narrow length of the canyon, a river now, pale brown, opaque, boiling. There was no way.

We filled water at the spring as we returned up the hill, stopping at our only neighbor’s house to bring him water and try to use a telephone. Azhang Tsering Dorje was also stranded in the upper village, with a tiny calf and a Jersey cow abundantly in milk. The phone line to the village was cut, and the mobile didn’t work. He sent us back with a silver bowl of fresh yogurt, offered us flour, vegetables, told us to come if there was anything we might need.

So began our Sabbath. For three days we sat in sun and scattering rain, watching the water rise. I watched it wondering what it would mean in the village—ours, all of them. May there be timely rains, and bountiful harvests. The crop was nearly ready in the fields. I wondered if the fields would still be there when we could descend again, if the walls would stand. We sat, and waited, and watched. 

On the fourth day the waters had receded enough to pass. Walking down we found the topography utterly transformed, the course of the river completely displaced from what it had been. Boulders had been lifted and set down again as if by giants, banks eroded, roots of old, old trees laid bare. Young trees lay broken and scattered on the new mud flats. The river still ran brown.

In Tar, the news was good. The houses stood. The fields (all but two, the lowest) were intact, unscathed; great swathes had been torn from two small fields along the water’s edge. The embankment showed the anatomy of the land like a fresh wound. Below, four bridges had been lost, and the footpath leading up was a shambles. The sky was clear, air bright with the feeling of newness that follows rain.

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