As I covered about half a lap around the loop in what I want to describe as a fast trot, but was probably more like a slow waddle, the sky started to drizzle a bit, then, by the time I started a third lap, began to rain. At first it was a light rain, and I thought, why not go on walking? After all, what harm is there, really, in being out in the rain? A friend was once inspired to write a story for our writers’ group in response to that question. In places like India or other third world countries, people walk in the rain all the time, she said. They have few other options. They just keep walking. They don’t melt or get sick from it. Why are we in the West so afraid of walking in the rain?
I kept walking. The rain poured down with more force. If it had been cold, I might have worried about hypothermia or catching a chill, but it was a warm day, and there wasn’t even much wind.
The rain on my arms and face was like pine needles or feathers dropping on my skin. Then, as it rained harder, it felt like I was gently pushing through a constantly moving curtain of water streaming across my head and shoulders, dripping down my forehead and nose, making it hard to see. It was difficult to look straight ahead. Water poured across my face, my eyes, and shrouded the air with that moving curtain as I kept walking. I looked down at the ground and followed the road that loops around the various sections of the cemetery. The road was easier to see than anything else around.
Puddles formed in the asphalt, but where tree branches leaned out over the road, there were no puddles, only damp sections in odd shapes, bordered by the shallow water accumulating in the more exposed areas. Trees sheltered parts of the road, their thick branches hanging over it as they stood guard over graves nearby. I stood for a moment under the branches of a very lush, large, old pine to see how much shelter it could give, but water still dripped slowly and haphazardly, though steadily, between the needles, sometimes sliding off the needles and branches in larger drops than the ones falling through the spaces between them. Some parts of the road were slightly higher than others, so the rain gathered around those drier spots beneath the trees like thin ponds around an island. My shoes and clothes were already soaked completely, so I walked through the puddles, splashing a little by jumping in them or sloshing my feet around. I had some kind of power over where this element settled, I thought. Of course, the water just poured back into its puddle when I moved on.
I passed the lawn mower guy. He had stopped and covered himself in black, plastic trash bags. One was draped around his upper body. He had poked his hands and head through it, and he seemed to be sitting in another one, which covered the lower half of his body stretched out before him on the motorized machine. His feet and legs were in the bag as he worked the pedals and drove. That seemed dangerous to me. A wide-brimmed hat protected his head. He looked miserable. He ignored me. I’m not sure he even realized I was there as he continued mowing between the graves. It looked like acres of muddy graves.
What happens to the dead when it rains? Do the concrete vaults that coffins are buried within protect the dead from water and dirt, the way funeral businesses promise? Surely the ground shifts as it becomes mud. Eventually the damp will penetrate and damage the coffins, the dead. What is it that compels us to defy the elements so much we even bury our dead with expensive, concrete vaults or liners? Time and weather will have their pounds of flesh no matter what we do to postpone the inevitable. Do the spirits of the dead know or care? Most of the time I think I don’t believe in ghosts, heaven, or hell. But when I walk around this cemetery, I’m not really sure. I never walk here at night. At that moment, I drenched myself in life, there among the graves.
I spread my arms outward, palms up. The rain slid across my skin in large, soft drops. I opened my mouth and stuck out my tongue to drink it. It was tasteless. Usually water has some kind of taste. If it comes from my tap it has a metallic taste. Sometimes it tastes the way dust smells. If it comes from the filter on the side of my refrigerator, there is a slight, musty taste, much like the smell of the refrigerator itself on the rare occasions when it is clean with nothing moldering in it. But this rain water tasted of nothing, like the sky around it.
I breathed it in. Rain has a distinct but mild smell. It is the smell of moisture, of water, or is it really that our noses feel the moisture in the nasal passages and register it as a smell? It is different from the smell just before and after rain. That is a result of ozone, plant oils, or a compound produced by bacteria in the soil, called geosmin, which is released in the air by the water. The rain itself, while it poured all over me, soaking my hair, my clothes, my skin, just smelled like fresh water. It was the smell of life itself, of our greatest desires: to assuage thirst, to let it pour over us and wash away dirt, grief, our sins. The harder it rained, the more I wanted to just stand in the middle of the downpour and stand up to the deluge. It is just rain! I will not melt.
Birds generally weather storms by either perching in a tree and clutching the branch with their talons, migrating outside its range, or riding it out in the wind currents, sometimes blown far away from where they want to be. One spring, I watched a brown dove land on the railing of my back porch in the middle of a bad rainstorm. It perched there on the railing, facing into the strong wind that lashed water against everything in its path and shook the nearby trees so badly they shed pine needles in piles across the grass. The dove stayed there, letting the rain and wind pummel it, facing down the torrent with its eyes closed. It could have sought shelter under the branches of a tree, or even under the eaves of a house. Instead, it made its stand in the open, letting the water wash over its feathers and tiny body, resisting the wind, waiting out the elements’ frenzy by meeting it head on, then flying off once the storm had calmed down to a gentle drizzle.
Why do we humans always seek some kind of shelter in a storm? Last summer, I waited out a thunder storm in my small tent in a KOA campground in St. Augustine, Florida. The rain tapped and drummed across the canvas while I lay on my air mattress, reading by an LED lamp, hoping the tent wouldn’t leak. It didn’t. I was grateful to discover it shed the rain well; even the floor stayed dry. Then came thunder and lightning. It would have been safer to retreat to my minivan. However, I reasoned there were much taller things nearby for the lightning to hit: trees, a large building next to the fence, many motor homes. I stayed in the tent and listened to the storm, letting the varied rhythms of the rain washing the tent roof and sides lull me to sleep for a short while until the loud music, shouting and laughter of a party two sites away woke me up. Those folks didn’t let a storm stop their fun. They drank and played games at a picnic table, sheltered by only a tarp with a string of decorative lights hung around the edges of it, until 1:30 a.m., long after the storm had fizzled out. The rain must have wet them all, including the food and games. But it didn’t deter them, much to the annoyance of everyone around them. I lay in my tent, content to be dry, an outsider, disturbed and sleepless because of the party, not the storm.
Not on this day. I met the storm face on. I embraced the rain. I walked home, water pouring across and down my face, my arms, my hands, my clothes, through my hair, across my shoulders and back. My next door neighbor stepped out onto his covered front porch, laughing at me. “What are you doing?” he asked. I stretched out my arms wide, as though to catch the rain now pouring so hard I could barely see in front of me. “I’m walking in the rain!” I said, as though it weren’t obvious. He laughed more. “But why?” he asked. I smiled. “Why not?” I asked. I opened my door and went inside. Once out of the rain, I realized that I was actually chilled. I ran into the bathroom with the clothes still dripping, trying not to get water on my wool rug, stripped them off and wrung them out in the sink, leaving them there. The hot, forceful shower stung my face. It was sharper, stronger, than the rain, and hot, the quickest way I knew to warm up. Dry and warm, I boiled tap water for a cup of tea. Outside, the rain continued pouring in a loud cascade.