The pump that sucked the water from the river was the farm’s heart. Daddy always said so. That Mother would ask Tom to turn it on made him feel important, scared almost.
It was not that he didn’t know how to do it. He had watched Daddy many times. Sometimes Daddy had let him pull the string that made the motor go put-put-put-put and blew a cloud of black smoke in your face. Sometimes, Daddy had let him open the valves. Watch out for snakes, Daddy would say, because snakes liked to hide under the pipes, where it was cool and moist.
It was just that... Daddy had always been around to help him. The farm was so strange and quiet without Daddy, but that didn’t stop the rice from growing or the sun from shining or the wind from drying out the ground, so someone needed to flood the field.
He checked the diesel in the pump’s reservoir, and he pulled the string. The motor sputtered and blew a big cloud of smoke. Tom laughed, but it was a kind of lonely sound without anyone to laugh with him. While the water was going up the long snout that made the pump look like a mosquito, Tom banged a stick on the valve—to scare the snakes—and used all of his skinny weight to turn the handle. The valve creaked open. Brown water sloshed out of the pipe. It ran in the runnels between the rows of rice plants, which stretched as far into the dusty air as Tom could see.
Now he could ride his bike home and come back in a few hours’ to turn off the pump. He could sit on the veranda with Mother, staring into the distance with the phone in her lap.
His hands jammed into the pockets of his shorts, Tom walked down the levee, pushing aside the grass that was almost as tall as him.
Over his head, the leaves that still hung on the gum trees had turned brown, even though only a haze remained of the vile clouds of purple smoke that had drifted in from the east, where Daddy had gone to fight the fires.