The bird, a raven, stood atop the woman's bloated, sunburnt body, staring at the boy, Randall, five at the time, as he weakly reached towards his mother. The raven opened its beak, head following the boy's fingers; it tilted its wings forward, and ruffled itself up. Randall went limp, defeated. The raven squawked, then looked up, in the direction of a distant noise.
Blades cut the humid, rank air, pressing the floodwater below the roofline of Randall's house into concentric circles. The raven took flight. The boy was only vaguely aware of the approaching helicopter and rested his cheek against the sun scorched asphalt shingles. A rope curled down, landing at the crestline, then a man in a drab green suit and harness descended. Randall looked at the face of his dead mother, her eyes bulging out of puffy lids, her lips cracked and pressed against her crooked teeth, and he could not remember the way she looked before the storm arrived six days ago. Then strong hands scooped him upright, and he was in the lap of a stranger who smelled of sweat and metal and fuel, staring at the sun, dangling over brown stormwater.
The blades returned, but this time Randall was a man in a tan uniform and a helmet. He threw a rope down over the side of the helicopter, attached himself to it, secured his gun, and descended with three other soldiers into a tiny village in Afghanistan. They arrived on the ground in a cloud of dust. The villagers peeked from windows and stood in doorways, not wanting to run, but not knowing the occasion of the raid. Randall let go of the rope and swung his gun around. There was a loud bang, then the helicopter groaned, then a deafening blast. He looked up into a blossoming sunsetty ball. The blades tilted away from the tail, metal screeched. Randall ran forward into the street. The explosion bled out drops of hot metal, a white rain of fire to brand the mudbrick and wood rooftops. The helicopter thudded down; people screamed from within a house that was dismembered, though they could not be heard after the the initial concussion. Then a bullet ripped through Randall's chest, his forward momentum arrested, he stood still, wondering at the new feeling, unsure, the pain not yet registering.
He fell. There were more bullets. The other soldiers died in the ambush, but Randall was dragged to a house with two rooms separated by a blue curtain. A woman peeked out from behind the edge, and he met her gaze. She disappeared, the curtain left to sway gently.
"You're the interpreter?" asked a man in Arabic. He loomed over Randall, with a close-cropped beard, sweating profusely. He pressed his hand against the wound, but blood continued to seep up around his palm.
"Yes," Randall replied, in the same language.
"Why did you come here?" asked the man.
"I can't give you that information," said Randall. The man narrowed his eyes.
"That's a soldier's response," said the man, "but you don't strike me as a soldier."
"Then what am I, sir?" asked Randall blankly.
"You're a man who has already died," said the man.
"How do you know?"
The man smiled briefly, then rubbed his chin with his free hand.
"You will not survive this wound. Not out here. I did some training to become a doctor in Kabul, but my family needed me here."
"To be a foot soldier for--"
"No. That I am not. I don't have guns, not even for my own protection. Not for my sister's. I was not the one that shot you. It is my duty to save you, but that can't happen. You will die."
"I think I figured that out."
"Why did you come here?"
"I said I can't tell you."
"Tell him, brother, tell him," said the woman behind the curtain. Randall saw the shadow of her hand against it. He looked at the man, who then looked sad.
"We've had a drought for twenty years. Our wells are dry now," said the man.
"So?" asked Randall.
"There was a...prophecy," the man wrinkled his forehead in discomfort at saying the words, "that the water was taken from us."
"By a bird," said the sister. The man rolled his eyes.
"The women," he said, "they think everything is a fairytale."
"It was a bird the color of the night," said the sister, "and it landed and drank up all the water from the ground, then flew up and drank the water from the clouds, and it took it away to another land, away from us, to prolong our suffering for having bent so easily to the Soviet soldiers. And the prophecy is that the bird will return with the water when our village has completed our penance."
"I can see in your face that you think us to be uneducated. Rural fools. But like I said, this is the sort of tale of passed between the lips of women," said the man. "I am myself a man of science...but..."
"The helicopter?" offered Randall. He coughed, and air bubbles surged up and frothed out of the wound.
"It is symbolic of a bird, yes, but there is more. The story goes that we would know our penance was over the day we met a man who had died."
"I'm not dead yet," said Randall, swallowing blood that was welling up in his throat.
"As I said, you have already died. Not here, but sometime in the past. You are dead in the eyes, I can see it. I have never seen a man with such eyes."
"That's not scientific."
"No, that is not." The man slowly lifted his hand from the wound. He frowned, his eyes heavy with water. "I cannot save you. But maybe you've come to save us."
Randall wheezed and choked, struggling for oxygen. He slapped the floor with his hands, and looked around the room, the mud walls decorated with loosely pinned up fabric, a table with a metal tea set, dusty pillows arranged as seating, and then he saw the curtain. The shadow of the sister's hand, cast across the folds looked like the head and beak and wings of a bird. Randall stopped breathing, his heart followed, but his brain held onto the image.
The man with the beard leaned over Randall, to listen to his chest. He sat up, then pressed two fingers against Randall's lids, pulling them down and covering the eyes. Then the chest swelled up--the man stood, shocked. Blood spilled out over the wound again, then it ran pink, then clear.
"Water!" said the man. "It's water!" His sister threw back the curtain and ran to embrace her brother.
The water bubbled up unabated out of Randall's chest, mouth, and nose. It inched across the floor, soaking into carpet and pillows. It touched the feet of the siblings, filling their shoes with coolness, then the day became noticeably darker. They went to the doorway and looked out. There were men in the street picking at the wreckage of the helicopter, but the sky was gray and threatening. Large raindrops began to fall, and over the next several months, it rained regularly, and the drought ended.