Tell me more about New York, her mother says, shifting on the overstuffed couch to make room for Clara. The green leather creaks. You really are in the big smoke now. But then it’s not all that wet, is it?
It’s wet enough, Clara answers. Wetter than it is here in Melbourne.
Her mother sighs. I don’t know. Last year Osaka had 1624 millimetres. And New York was what, 58 millimetres in February?
It’s winter. It’s snowing.
Exactly. Snow! Who’s looking after that? You working with snow now?
Your father and I would help you with the costs, Clara. I know those private Japanese universities— She breaks off, shuddering with a guttural, broiling cough. Her glasses jolt down her nose.
Dad said you quit smoking.
I’ll quit, I’ll quit. Clara’s mother waves a hand. I’ll quit when I’m ready. We weren’t talking about me. She heaves herself into standing, shoves her feet into orthotic slippers and shuffles to the kitchen, where Clara can hear her father ferrying trays from the oven.
Clara fingers the cracked leather piping on the couch and breathes in the stink of stale cigarette smoke. It is always so hard to visit, but then it’s harder to stay away and have her laptop burble the Skype tone every other Sunday, her folks crowded together on the screen wanting to hear that she is doing better than she is. Her mother goading. Her father conciliatory, urging her to do this or that for her mother’s sake.
She used to talk about them to her housemate, Jordan. The two spent a lot of time together on and off campus because the rain workshop spaces were housed in the same building as the steam and cloud laboratories. Dependable, adaptable Jordan, with her long, cool hands and smirking eyes. When they first moved in off a Craigslist ad, Clara thought they would have a lot in common. They were both living overseas, following family legacies in climate production. And yet Jordan’s parents seemed to radiate nothing but Canadian politeness when they phoned, and there was the minor fact of Jordan acing all her classes. Clara stopped talking about her worries to avoid Jordan’s empty sympathy.
Set the table, will you, Clara, her mother calls from the kitchen. Your brother will be here any minute. He’s bringing Jackson, you know. Jackson works in leaves.
I know, she calls back. I’ve met him before, remember.
Her mother’s bulk fills the doorway. Have you? she asks, the two words drawling incredulous. I really didn’t think you’d been back since then.
Clara sets the table in silence. So many things here are the same as when she used to live at home: her father’s library of plant atlases and his collection of framed botanical illustrations; her mother’s barrel-sized storm glass that squats on wrought-iron feet in the corner of the dining room—an imposing reminder, with its evolving display of feathery crystals and drifting fog, of her mother’s own glistening career. But on each visit there are also glimpses of change. Today there is a new photo of Vaughn with Jackson in the hallway, arms slung over each other’s shoulders on the beach. Her dear, blond, gay brother who, despite coming out to their parents at the height of a prolonged phase of high school delinquency, still manages to be the favoured child.
Dinner is an unsalted meatloaf with mashed sweet potato and over-steamed snow peas. Jackson is a delight. He proffers Clara questions about New York that let her tell stories about Manhattan traffic and the comforting cliff faces of the Midtown skyscrapers without feeling like a failure. For an hour or two while she pushes the deflated pea pods around her plate she feels almost cosmopolitan. Never does he ask her about making rain.
Then her mother wants to hear about Vaughn’s work. The air management team he heads is involved in the wind farms up the coast that have been targeted by wildlife protestors for native bird loss. She wants to know if he has to deal with any of that. He laughs his Bondi Vet laugh and shakes his head. He wants to tell her about the gust-metering plant they have been commissioned to upgrade and their mother hangs on every word even though Clara knows she doesn’t understand the technology or even the application completely. There are a lot of overlaps in fields of macroclimatic manufacture but Vaughn is the only scion of this little dynasty to be culturing wind.
After dessert her mother goes out to the porch to smoke—just quickly, just quickly—and Clara’s father brings a few pages he has torn out of a National Geographic on advances in leaf deciduosity catalysis—here, Jackson, I was reading this and wondering if you could tell me more about it. I know from my own time in petal divulsion logistics that … And so on.
At the end of the week her parents drop Clara at the airport. It’s a long drive and her mother sits almost sideways on the front passenger side dispensing advice to the back. Call more, study more, feel free to ask if she wants her mother’s old droplet tensile dynamics texts down from the attic; that sort of stuff doesn’t really go out of date. But do they even cover that in New York? They bring the car to the departures level and pull into a five-minute bay by the doors. Her father pulls Clara’s suitcase from the boot. He pats her hand with a tentative rhythm. The warm Melbourne morning glows through his silvering hair. We’re very proud of you, he says. And for just a second Clara imagines that he might say despite everything.
Clara doesn’t sleep on the flight. She is in an aisle seat near the toilets and all the long-night passengers pad and thump past, jostling her elbow or shoulder as they waver along on the carpet. In Manhattan it is after 11 on a Tuesday night but there is still thick traffic creeping out from under the Hudson and beetling around the night-bright and snowy city streets. The Uber driver clacks acrylics against the steering wheel in time to an old Lady Gaga song as they crawl towards the apartment block. Clara is wearing Melbourne summer clothes, stale from the flight. As she wrestles her suitcase from the boot, a misstep into the grey gutter snow sends a cold rush over the top of her canvas sneaker.
Jordan is still up. The apartment is humid from the skeletal steaming apparatus nesting on the stove. Jordan’s study notes, Blu-tacked over the window, obscure most of the murmuring city.
Hey, says Jordan, pushing damp strands of hair from her face. How was it? Sorry for this. I don’t want the others to see until it’s done.
Clara keeps the recap shallow. She makes a cup of tea and sits on the couch, waiting for sleep to feel closer. Jordan scribbles on Post-its and overlays them on the diagrams of pistons and wheels on the windows. When Clara finally goes to bed she shuts her eyes and can still hear the noise of the plane engines.
The New York winter is slow to ease. Jordan works late every night perfecting her already perfect semester project. The apartment is filled with a moist fog that Jordan samples, measures and titrates, keeping track of her progress with an ever increasing number of damp-wrinkled Post-its.
Clara starts to avoid the apartment. She packs a bag with textbooks and lugs it around with her. Between classes she heads to the café strip, keeping warm over coffee, her book bag under the insulating mound of her jacket. She reads emails on her phone and watches people hurry through the smatters of snow outside. After the first few days, the barista learns her order and starts tamping the grounds as soon as he sees her join the queue at the counter.
Her father calls. His head and shoulders look too small on the screen all alone. Her mother is in hospital. Dan the podiatrist said, Dr Alison Brodie said, June the diabetes nurse said, Mr Elijah Feldman the plastic surgeon said, and now she is having two toes amputated from her right foot. Clara feels sick. She wants to ask if it will make it harder to walk properly. If the right foot is like your right hand, and does it make a difference compared to it being your left foot. What they do with the toes when they cut them off. But her father looks so wilted that instead she asks if Vaughn is away for work. He’s not. He’s at the hospital now, her father says. He came to the appointment with Dr Brodie. He has a much better head for these things than we do. Your mother really appreciates having him around.
I know, says Clara.
She stops going to most of her classes. She misses due dates for papers, applies for extensions. The snow melts, returns and melts again. She washes the tideline of dried salt off the cuffs of her jeans and it doesn’t come back. Every Wednesday night she takes her bag of unread books and sits at the back of the Precipitation Interactions class because the visiting lecturer is an old, thin, Japanese woman with cropped hair the colour of steel who last semester told Clara that her paper on acid deposition moisture balance simplifications was the best she had ever read. So for Professor Kouumoto she starts an essay on evaporative geometry and finally clears a space on the tiny desk in her room so she can work in the evenings.
Her father calls. She answers Skype in her pyjamas. Her laptop keyboard is buried in handwritten summaries of academic papers she is using in her essay. Her mother is back home. Glenda the hospital-in-the-home nurse says that Mr Feldman says that Dr Brodie can manage her wound now that the little vacuum cleaner they had been cling-wrapping to her foot has been taken away. Clara imagines her mother lurching through the house with the wound-care machine like a ball and chain dragging behind her leg.
She reads the most recent publication on evaporative geometry in the Journal of the International Climatic Production Society. She disagrees with it. She emails an interlibrary loan request for 27 articles that she can’t access online. The apartment is so humid from Jordan’s fog that Clara finds mildew on her bedroom curtains. She buys a tub of moisture absorber to put on the desk beside her laptop. In eight days water reaches the ‘replace when water reaches yellow mark’ mark. She goes back to the store and buys half a dozen tubs and lines them up along the skirting board. Her mother goes back to hospital to get antibiotics in her veins and Mr Feldman debrides her foot, which sounds to Clara like a ritual from medieval Catholicism.
The evaporative geometry essay expands as Clara sifts through the established and recent literature. She finds evidence from refractive luminosity gradients that supports her approach and begins to develop a detailed revision of the concepts presented in the Journal of the International Climatic Production Society. Professor Kouumoto gives a lecture on droplet flow coefficients in applied evapromatics and Clara is shocked to find that she learns nothing new. The professor goes up on her toes to print equations across the whiteboard in calligraphic script and they are so familiar to Clara that she sits immobile while the students around her scrawl in notebooks or flutter panicky fingers across keyboards.
The trees in Central Park unfurl millions of silver buds into garish green. The wind through the branches shifts from whistle to rustle and Clara thinks of Vaughn. She reads and annotates every academic paper published in her field in the last ten years. Her essay has evolved into a short thesis and she applies for an extension. Two or three other professors email to ask how she is, where she is. She ignores them. Spring exams are three weeks away.
Mr Feldman takes another toe, then the front half of the foot, then the whole right lower leg up to just below the knee. It is pretty clear to Clara that even a left leg would be a problem at this point. The smell of mildew grows so strong in her apartment that the building supervisor knocks on the door. Clara orders four cartons of moisture absorber tubs online and stacks them waist-high against her bedroom walls. Her mother is moved to intensive care with an overwhelming infection. Vaughn is at the bedside. They tell Clara to focus on her exams. They promise to let her know the moment things improve.
Clara drifts through the exam period, staring down question after mystifying question with a kind of exhilarated fatalism she has never felt before. She doodles in the margins of the answer booklets. In the clammy apartment, she works in her room until she finishes her thesis on evaporative geometry. She saves the document one last time and is attaching it to an email to Professor Kouumoto when her mobile rings. Her father wants to tell her, right now, standing in the hospital parking lot as the night shift wanders out to their cars, rather than wait to get home to his computer. Her mother has died. Clara thinks: I wonder if Mr Feldman took off too much. Or did he not take enough off fast enough. She clicks send to Professor Kouumoto without rereading the email.
Jordan won’t accept help carrying her apparatus to the laboratory for submission. It is packaged in a box twice its size with a mound of packing peanuts, the remainder of which carpet the living-room floor. When Jordan leaves, Clara pulls down the study diagrams and opens the windows to let out the last of the perfect fog. She leaves the barricade of absorber tubs in her bedroom, just in case.
On the way home, Clara sits for nine hours and ten minutes in a Starbucks at Los Angeles International Airport. A guy behind the counter looks like the barista in New York but the coffee isn’t the same. She checks her email on her phone. Her father asks where her mother would have put the meatloaf recipe. Vaughn doesn’t know.
On the long-haul leg to Melbourne, her seat-mate is a gregarious backpacker returning from a South American tour who asks why she is flying. She wonders what to say. Her mother’s death is a precious, fragile thing, like a raindrop, that if you don’t catch the light just right, if you don’t know enough about it, you might not notice how complex and incredible the fact of it is and you might mistake it for something brief and banal, like a drip of water in the rain. She says she is going home to see her family. Which is also true.
The house in Melbourne is missing pieces of itself; some element of its very foundation has been severed. Clara stands in the kitchen putting dishes away in the wrong cupboards, not quite able to remember where they go. She sifts through her mother’s wardrobe, trying to choose a burial outfit. There is a beautiful grey satin suit that she remembers her wearing to Vaughn’s graduation. She offers it to her father, who is sitting on the side of the bed. He shakes his head.
Not that one, he says. She thought she looked terrible in that.
But she didn’t.
I know. Her father shrugs. We can’t make her wear that.
They settle on a ruddy woollen jacket and charcoal skirt.
Will it matter about … the operation? Clara asks.
The leg? Oh God, the leg. Her father drops his head into his hands. What do we do? She doesn’t want everyone to look in and see that.
They change the skirt for a pair of trousers.
She was so proud of you, Clara.
I know you don’t really feel it, but she was.
Clara doesn’t reply.
She saw a lot of herself in you, he continues.
Clara shakes her head. I know I let her down. I’ll fail this semester, you know.
What standard are you holding yourself to?
What standard? Clara repeats. Mum’s. Vaughn’s. Look at you all.
You don’t need to be anything more than you are. Your mother was no Nobel laureate.
But it was different for her. The diabetes. Her eyes. If it hadn’t been for that—
You think that’s why she retired so early? The diabetes? You really think if she had been leading her field she would have just let it all go? That’s what she wanted you to believe. At the end of the day she had no great skill for rain. She got by. That’s all.
It is a shocking declaration for her father to make about his dead wife. Clara is reeling.
He continues: She had it in her head that if you thought she’d excelled, you would believe in yourself and strive that much harder. That you—both of you—would have nothing holding you back.
You let her lie to us?
It was … just the impression she wanted to give. It was important to her.
Clara sits silent for a long moment. Then: All this time I thought you were both so disappointed in me.
Can you not tell Vaughn, please, Clara? I mean, it doesn’t really matter for him, does it?
At the funeral, low clouds pen in the cool morning. Mourners file slowly through the side room where the coffin is set for viewing. The styrofoam prosthesis that fills her mother’s right trouser leg has been tastefully matched to her left. In the low light the difference is unnoticeable.
By the time they all reach the cemetery, the clouds are grey and full and Clara hopes that of all days it will not rain today. In the car before they head to the graveside, she checks her email and sees a note from Professor Kouumoto, who expresses sympathy for Clara’s overall results this year but hopes she might consider an offer. She forwarded Clara’s thesis to her home laboratory in Osaka, where colleagues have read it with interest. They propose a residency to develop her ideas. Professor Kouumoto hopes Clara will think over the opportunity. After all, as they know, Osaka did record 1624 millimetres of rain last year. There is a lot of work.
Clara rereads the email twice more. The phone is like a baby bird in her hands. She tenderly turns off the screen and heads out to stand by the grave. Jackson has his arm around Vaughn. Other mourners stand awkwardly in heels on the soft grass. Trouser hems lift old dew off the lawn. She takes her father’s arm. Then, all around them, as they group at the grave like animals at a watering hole, the first delicately crafted drops of beautiful rain begin to fall. •
M.L. Siemienowicz is a Melbourne writer with short fiction published in Overland, Island and Hecate among others. Her novel manuscript was shortlisted for the 2018 Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award. @clockworkquill