Joseph lived on a farm. His eyes were the same faded denim blue as the sky, his skin was the white of the weathered silo wood, and his hair was the dark gold of wheat stubble left in a field. He had lived on the farm all thirteen years of his life and knew all the moods of it. Often, he could tell by the color of the sky at dawn how the day was going to go; If it would rain, if something had got into the chicken coop, how many visitors they would have. It seemed no significant trick to him, so he never devised a language with which to discuss it. He felt this deficit sorely the day he woke up and the sky was crystal.
What did that mean? Even in his own head, he struggled to define it. The sky had a peculiar crackling quality to it almost like a lightning storm, but not quite. The air tasted like a tornado, yet none of the animals in their pens had the telltale restlessness that preceded such storms. The sky simply wasn’t right, and he couldn’t explain how or why.
So he didn’t.
The day was unremarkable from sunup to about two-thirty. Ma and Pa and baby Sadie went to town to see about some business. Uncles Carl and Curt, identical save for Curt’s bristled-straw mustache, were left on hand to mind everything. Joseph did what he normally did: weave in and out of chores to grab the odd lonely moment where he could be by himself. Instead of whittling or playing marbles, he put his ear to the sky. The atmosphere had turned an innocuous blue, but the air still tasted wrong. Earthy. Like the ground after a lightning snap.
Uncle Curt was on the roof chasing one of the chickens back to ground-level. Carl had availed himself to replace the rope-winch to the well and had Joseph on standby to hand him tools. It was all so shockingly normal so when the change came it was as sudden and terrible as a thunderclap.
Carl tied a quick blood knot as a stay and grunted as he got up from a sitting position.
“Awl’s in the house,” he said, ambling across the yard, “lent it to your daddy for his leather.”
Joseph followed not out of duty, but simple inertia. He floated like a fishing bob behind his uncle as they met Curt, walking perpendicular with a chicken under one arm.
“‘Bout to get the mallet,” Curt said. Carl grunted.
The brothers parted, Carl to the house, Curt to the coop.
“S’funny,” Carl began, “I ever tell you—”
Whatever anecdote he began was lost, never to be found again. A meaty thud of impact reverberated across the farm yard. As one, uncle and nephew turned.
Curt stood angled oddly, as if frozen in the middle of a dance. He held his arm in one hand, face ashen grey.
“Okay,” he said, spitting. “Oookay.”
His right shoulder was oddly lumpy and grey. No. As it began to move, Joseph realized the impact had been the sound of a rat hitting his shoulder. The rodent lay draped over the dislocated joint, no bigger than a loaf of banana bread. Whatever height it had fallen from had stunned it momentarily. The moment was over almost as quickly as it began, when the rat righted itself and screeched. Joseph got a flashbulb impression of mad black eyes and yellow teeth before it buried itself in Curt’s shoulder, screaming.
Carl unfroze. He drove the boy before him with a firm hand, saying, “go on, get,” as he shoved Joseph towards the house. They reached the safety of the porch as another rat screeched from the sky to wind up denting the hood of the old Ford truck. They gaped as the rodent shook off the fall and scampered away.
From the safety of the front steps they watched Curt make it halfway across the yard until another rat beaned him on the head. He’d been tearing at the rat who’d been tearing at his shoulder, now his hands fell away and he dropped to one knee. The rat that bounced off his head scampered to his ankle, followed by three new arrivals.
Curt looked up just once, making eye contact with Carl. Carl nodded grimly and shoved Joseph inside the house.
Curt only screamed towards the end. Carl wouldn’t let him look outside, but Joseph still heard the battered sound of Curt’s throat trying to make words, along with the desperate slaps as he tried to beat them away.
Carl was breathing heavy. Perspiration formed a mustache on his clean-shaven face.
“They just bounced,” he said, not to Joseph or anyone alive. “They fell outta the damn sky and ain’t even dead!”
The tin roof of the farmhouse became a deafening drum, continuous gong sounds echoing through the house as rats hit the metal. Carl went to great aunt Sadie’s sewing desk and got some cotton wool for their ears and then put Joseph to work barricading doors. The icebox went in front of the back door. The china cabinet before the front. One window was broken by a sideways-sleeting rat that Carl threw out by the tail, he nailed the tea-tray over the hole.
Joseph stood at the second-story window in his parent’s room. The rain had been going on for an hour, now the fall of bodies was cushioned by the other bodies. A fat carpet of rats swarmed the chicken coop. He could hear the cows in the pasture, bellowing as they swatted fruitlessly with their tails. The barn cat was nowhere in sight, but more than likely a loss.
Carl came into the room panting and perspiring. “Damn fine thing it isn’t raining cats and dogs right now,” he joked thinly. He noticed Joseph and waved. “Come away from the winder. Nothing worth seeing out there, anyway.”
The daylight turned black as the inside of a cow’s stomach. Storm clouds deposited rat after rat on the dusty ruin of the farm. The air smelled thick and sharp, the earthiness turned to the smell of a rat’s den. Joseph imagined the clouds roiling with all the debris that comes with rodents; perhaps a musky rain of rat’s piss would fall on them next.
Carl deposited Joseph on the settee and looked at him hard. “I don’t like your eyes, boy.”
Joseph turned robotically to look at him. “Ma and pa. Baby Sadie.”
Carl failed to hide his dismay quickly enough. “I’m sure they’re fine. Lots of buildings downtown, good hard brick.”
They both knew it was a lie.
The rats knocked out the single line that ran to the farmhouse, so they had supper by candlelight. Leftover beef, new potatoes that grit in their teeth, and stale biscuits. Joseph saw an upside-down cake his mother left in the icebox and said nothing. Carl kept up a regimen of bright, brittle conversation that did not succeed in drowning out the screech of rats.
“I’ve heard of fish rain afore,” he said, cotton wool all but muffling his voice, “frogs one time, too. Up in Heckville. That was in your great-grandad’s time.” His hands shook as he sawed the meat. He cut the webbing between his thumb and forefinger and swore through a gritted smile.
“You’ll see, Joseph,” he said as he swaddled the cut with a cloth napkin. “A little rain like this is nothin’. Not at all. Probably just some tornader pick them up from elsewhere. Nothin’ at all.”
Joseph sat and watched his uncle with dry eyes. Part of him had cracked and fallen away when the first rat fell. His uncle’s desperate babble washed over him like a weak tide. He smelled the crackling odor of the sky and heard the rats and felt nothing.
Joseph would have liked to sleep in his own bed, but Carl dragged him into the cellar. There amidst the damp and the jars of preserves, Carl spread a single quilt over the both of them.
“You’ll see, bluebird,” he kept repeating. Bluebird had been his nickname for Joseph a long time ago. “You’ll just see.” What Joseph would see and what it would do, Carl did not say. He only repeated the phrase over and over.
The cellar floor was hard under his spine and Carl had only thought to bring one pillow. Somehow sleep found Joseph. He cracked an eye open at dawn.
The air smelled…normal. He could smell the color of the sky as clearly as he could see from the kitchen window that it would be the same flat blue as any other day.
The farm was in tatters. The dirt of the coop was churned up, not even a feather left. The rats had gnawed a hole in the silo and gorged themselves. In the pasture, only the metal tags from the heifer’s ears remained. Of the rats there was no sign.
Carl woke with a start when Joseph touched his arm.
“It’s clear. We can go now,” Joseph said.
Carl dithered an hour before he could even bring himself to look out the window, but once he did he fell into a manic frenzy of packing supplies. Though he swore they would return, Joseph watched him pack the government bonds and great-grandma’s golden brooch, along with every stitch of cash they had in the house.
The yard was empty of birdsong. The click of the front door closing echoed against the outbuildings. Carl gripped Joseph’s arm tightly as if he were blind and the boy was guiding him and set off down the long dirt lane up to the county road, a sad concrete tongue more full of potholes than cement.
Long hours they walked in the blistering sun. They passed other farms, other empty houses. Carl jumped every time something shifted. Joseph’s eyes were dry as he tracked the sun. The sky was bruise-purple before they came upon another sign of life: an old Chevy sputtering down the track. Carl dropped their burden and waved, screaming and yelling. The car kept on coming right toward them. A sharp smell hit Joseph’s nose.
“Y’see bluebird? It all works out.” Carl was chanting. He waved.
The impact of a fallen object shattered the windshield, sending the car drifting into the wrong lane before it collided with a fence pole and stopped. Both uncle and nephew held their breaths. There was a long, still moment before they saw movement from the car’s cab; but it wasn’t the injured driver or even a sky-born rat. It was a thin tabby cat that extracted itself from the crater before neatly grooming its tail.
“Bluebird,” Carl said meaninglessly as impact thuds started up all around them. “Oh, bluebird.”