Rise (Published as The Flood)

May 31, 2011 § Leave a comment



Stephanie Whetstone


When Ron and Jamie left for the store, Marian refused to go. Everybody rushed to the grocery to buy bread and eggs and milk at a time like this, but she never understood it. Maybe they wanted to make that tired story on the eleven o’clock news where cameras pan the empty aisles and some local says how long they had to wait in line and then one anchor tells the other anchor to stay dry out there, flashes a blinding smile and cuts to commercial. As if none of them could just cook beans and corn bread like they had eaten their whole lives, or something canned, or a frozen pizza. As if they didn’t know a thing about how to survive. The whole mess would be over by morning and who wanted to get caught in the sideways rain, driving a beaten old Ford Focus with worn-slick tires? Marian would just stay warm and dry and watch the weather on TV, thank you very much. She had been to the Sav-A-Lot the day before anyway. They were crazy to get out in this downpour, or reckless. They didn’t have a lick of sense between them; they weren’t the kind you could talk to, either.

“Bye, fools,” Marian said.

“Come on, Mama,” Jamie said, “We’ll stay in town if it gets too bad. I don’t feel right leaving you.”

“Go on. I’m grown. Just be careful and don’t drive through deep water. I’ll have dinner ready when you get back. Don’t call me if you drown.”

“Let’s go, Jamie. She won’t change her mind, not when she gets like that. Come on,” Ron said. Jamie ran through the rain to the car and climbed into the passenger seat, drenched, but safe beside her daddy. She waved at Marian, then reached toward the radio. Ron always let Jamie play whatever music she wanted. Spoiled rotten. Marian watched the red taillights until they blurred into the blackness and the rain and were gone. She got like that a lot these days. Something bubbled up in her, but she pushed it back down until the bubble burst and let out a breath. She knew that breathing could not be taken for granted. Sometimes, Marian imagined herself far away, in charge somewhere, but she never saw what it was that she was in charge of. Mostly, she saw herself here on Avery’s Creek.


Marian settled deep into the couch and surfed the channels until she found the weather. She had seen so many flash floods–that’s just what they were, quick as a blue white camera light, just long enough to make a picture for the paper. A person with even half a survival instinct would do like the animals do and burrow in next to each other; use each other for warmth.


The rain had come on delicate in the morning, then started to drive, hard, into the ground. It gave no sign of letting up, got too much for the clay to hold, ran in huge puddles, forced its way through cracks around doors, knocked down trees in its path. For a while, Marian sat with a cup of coffee, a magazine and the Weather Channel in the background, the screen glowing neon shades of yellow, green, orange, and red at the center of the storm. Avery’s Creek lay in the red area, right at the point where Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia met, on the Virginia side. It was funny to think of this place as a tiny, flat dot on a map. The mountains rose up around everything and the creeks sliced open small hollows, veins carrying blood to the heart of the river. Water boiled over the creek banks and ran unconfined, everywhere. Inside, Marian read in her magazine about the lives of the stars.

The big floods of Marian’s lifetime were 1964, 1981 and 1992. These marked, but did not hurt her. Of course, she had heard about the floods of 1927 and 1916. Tales of them had etched their way into life here, made a place for themselves, so that even elementary school children recognized them in plays and ballads. Rivers and streams took on the size and shape of steam engines or muscled heroes. Still, they were too familiar to be thought real. Marian knew how legend grew and overflowed, to make its own watermark against which all pain was measured. She knew that things were lost or added in the telling, until what was left wasn’t what happened at all. She kept her own truths close. There were a million floods and a million stories about them, she guessed, starting with Noah. This was just another.


The outside light that had been grey-green all day turned down two or three notches to a greenish-black. The air smelled like wet dirt, iron, and grass. She stepped out onto the porch. The rain had stopped. In a city nothing else would happen, but the swish and splash of trucks and cars. Here, she waited for the rise.


Ron and Jamie were probably just stuck in line at the Sav-a-Lot. Marian walked down the driveway toward the creek running along the road and listened to the rush of the current. Underneath the steady flow of the water, she thought she heard something . Was that the sound of a car idling?

She had lived on Avery’s Creek for twenty-three years, since she turned twenty and married. In summer, the creek barely trickled over rocks and was choked by kudzu. Kids made the vacant creek bed into a narrow, red-walled fort. In spring, it filled and sometimes could not hold. It spilled out and let everything go. Marian checked the water level in the long blanket of porch light. It didn’t look too bad. She heard a car horn.

“Marian!” Ron yelled. His voice sounded far away, thickened by the soft, wet air.

“Where are you?” Marian called. She ran down to where the road curved and crossed over the creek, her shoes steeped in mud. In the darkness, Marian heard better. “The culvert’s washed out… We can’t get through… We’ll stay in town… We’ll call you.” Ron’s words stretched to cover more ground. Across the five-foot wide stream of water and the marsh-road, Marian could make out Ron’s lanky shape and beside him, their daughter’s. It was just like looking at herself, like she used to be–long legs and arms, but the body still curved, not yet thickened to a rectangle. “Okay. Go slow. I’ll see you all in the morning.” she said. She heard the car door slam shut, the engine start, and they drove away.


Marian could not remember the last time she had been alone all night. Ron went to a weekend conference in Richmond, but that was two years ago. She surrounded herself with family and friends, drifted in waves of other people’s conversation. When she started checking on widow ladies for Senior Sisters, Ron said, “Can’t you just set still?” She laughed him off, but the real truth was, no she couldn’t. Stillness did not bring quiet.


The water ran thick as chocolate milk. It was even with the road, so Marian had to be careful where she stepped. She couldn’t tell the puddles from the creek, good thing she knew the path by heart. There were no borders, without the rain the wind moved faster, whipping black strings of hair into her eyes. Marian looked at the house. Better check the dogwood in the back yard. She studied the damage–white petals littered the ground. She had helped Ron plant this tree as a remembrance, so she could just look at it out the kitchen window as she washed dishes, living and knowing, and not saying anything. One big branch was flung clear across the yard, the tree’s pale splintered insides exposed. It would blossom again, but this year’s bloom was over.


The hill rose behind the house to the ridgeline. Past the row of blaze azaleas, chaos took hold. Rock and black dirt half slid and half held, trees narrow and thick meandered toward the grey-green sky. Maybe Marian could get a better view of the floodwater from above. She was wearing an old pair of Keds that would never come clean now, even if she bleached them. Her khakis were rolled above her knees and her navy blue raincoat covered the rest of her. Should she go back and stir the beans? Check the weather again? What if she got washed away? No. Go on. Go to higher ground.

Marian climbed, switching back and grabbing onto saplings for support. Her feet sank into the loam. She slipped a little, but she kept on until the trees thinned and she was on the ridge. She had accomplished something. Home was below, postage stamp-sized, warm with light. She tightened the hood of her raincoat; the air had gone cold.


Marian sat still and quiet, unable to shape words. “We can have another,” Ron said. He stroked her hair. “It wasn’t worth you going, too. Thank the Lord you’re living.” Marian wouldn’t thank anybody. Ron hugged her pale, slack body. She let him. What Lord? Why give a woman milk-full breasts aching for a baby that wouldn’t breathe, let alone suck? Her pressure had risen, but the doctor said to wait, stay home, it would be all right. She did what she was told, just twenty-two and scared. When she finally went in, the pressure had gone too high. They feared for her heart, more than the unshaped life inside her. With a horizontal slice and a pull, they took the baby from her, but he had already passed. Michael, she named him. Might have called him Mike, but not now, just Michael, like the angel. The nurse took pictures of him wrapped in a blue blanket and he looked just like a doll that had never died or lived.


“You might want these,” the nurse said, “So you know he was real.” At home, Marian burned the pictures and put the blue blanket in the cabinet with her grandmother’s china and silver and other things she never used. She wouldn’t speak his name again.


Jamie came along four years later. Marian let her come, but she knew not to latch on. She did it for Ron, so he wouldn’t be alone. He always wanted to talk, to know how she felt. Fine, was all she said. Jamie was born strong and small, without complications. Pink and not blue.

“Ain’t she a doll?” Ron said.

“She looks like you,” Marian said.

“I guess she does. Got the Fugate eyes, don’t she? That’ll make her mean.” Marian smiled, tired and relieved that he would take the baby, name her, make her his own. She slept. The baby breathed and sucked.


Marian did what she was supposed to do. She changed diapers and taught Jamie to walk. Then, she made sack lunches and braided Jamie’s hair. She would kiss and hug, but not for long. “Go on, now, you’ll muss my lipstick,” she’d say and Jamie would let go. Ron doted on Jamie and the space closed between them until there was no room left for Marian, and nothing next to her. The space inside her ballooned. She wished it would float her to the sky.

From the ridge, Marian could see both sides. Avery’s Creek was to the east, to the west was Tolliver’s Branch, then farther out, the town of Wise. It had outgrown its borders too, and now the lights of the stores and houses spread in a lake-sized mass that lapped the hills. Marian watched the creek overtake her yard. White plastic grocery bags clung to tree branches, a mangled bike tumbled by, one wheel missing, so many milk jugs were ripped from the trash, nothing stayed in its place. Dams of downed limbs caught a lawn chair and a baby blue shirt that someone had forgotten to bring in from the line, the trees bowed the wind. Marian watched the shirt float away, dip under the murky brown, sink; it didn’t come back up. She wanted to stop it, pull it out of the opaque water, but she was too far above it, it was just a shirt.


The wind picked up again, green maple leaves showed their silver sides, weeds doubled over, the wind gusted and howled pushing Marian down, but she fought it. She ran further down the ridge, flowing the water’s flow, breathless. She screamed, Michael! ran up to a pine tree, tried to climb it, but couldn’t get a hold. She fell on her back and lay there, moaning like an animal, the rain pelting her face, soaking her shirt. She heard a deep sound, then recognized it as her own voice, Michael! she called again. The force of the unbound name shook her, she sat on a rock, and called the name over and over again, now in whispers, the face was clear to her now, the dark hair pasted down to the head in tiny waves, the pale fuzz that covered his arms and back, the perfect fingers, slightly blue underneath the miniature fingernails that had grown long inside of her. Stop. But she couldn’t hold it,. all she had to do was roll off the ledge and fall to the creek, get swept into the swollen current.


Marian called, but no one could hear her, except the water and the wind. She crawled under a rock ledge, heard the sound of her own breathing, panting really, nothing to stop it, it kept a rhythm on its own.


The morning was overly bright in compensation for the storm. Floodwater receded, but left a film of dirt and sticks everywhere it had touched. It had touched everywhere. Marian woke under a small rock shelf that cropped out of the hillside. Hounds that had run loose, pulled by a scent and nothing else, must have bedded here before. The earth had dipped to hold a body and keep it warm. She knew now where she was.


She crawled out and stretched. What difference did it make where she slept? She was fine, felt good even, just dirty and damp, brown eyes slightly swollen. She saw the house, still lit from last night, the crippled dogwood twisted in the yard.


She slid and fell on her butt after a few steps down the hill and the impact surprised her. She turned toward the hillside, face first, and crept down the slope, like a toddler crawling down stairs. She carefully placed her foot on a rock below and inched downward. The rock couldn’t bear her weight and tumbled down, down, into the azaleas, taking her with it. She emerged from the bushes only a little scratched and disoriented, but she didn’t slow down.


Ron and Jamie still weren’t home yet when she went inside. Good God, what was that smell? The beans were stuck to the pot, dried and cracked. Marian took the pot outside and threw it in the trashcan. She left the door open. The TV news was forecasting good weather, on into the weekend.

There was a news story about two boys, ten and twelve, who had tried to cross the creek when the water was high. After a search, a neighbor found them, facedown, floating in shallow water under a bridge. Marian knew this story. It happened every time. The anchor interviewed bystanders.

She recognized the man onscreen, Roland Gover. They had gone to school together. He was missing most of his hair now. It had been so thick, too. “I just feel for the family,” he said, “They was young kids, just playing. You never know when you’ll just slip away.” As his face sank, the camera cut to the anchor. Her hair did not move in the wind. “Back to you, John,” she said gravely, then there was talk about sports.


A car crunched gravel. Ron and Jamie ran to her, hugged her. “We called. Why didn’t you answer? We looked everywhere.” Jamie said. Ron stood behind Jamie, his blue eyes staring at the black dirt ground into Marian’s clothes and damp hair. “Where were you?” he asked. “You liked to scared me to death.” He was scared; she could see it in his face. She realized then that she might look like a raccoon trapped inside a trashcan, no way out. She nodded.

“I tried to make a pot of beans, but they burned. I had to throw the whole pot out.”

“Is that what I smell?”

Marian’s eyes were wide; her hands were shaking. “I could have burned the house down,” she said. “We could have lost everything.” Ron said nothing, but touched her hair, tucking a stray strand behind her ear. She took a breath, wiped dirt off her face, “I guess I better take a shower.”


Once she was clean and drinking coffee, her pulse finally slowed. She made breakfast from eggs, bread and milk they had gotten at the store. Morning smells covered the stench of the beans. “You should have seen the line at the Sav-a-lot,” Ron said, “We got the last good loaf of bread. Them shelves had been torn to pieces. Everybody was talking about what a flood it would be. Looks like people would know better how to act.”

“Looks like they would,” Marian said. She filled his cup, her hands still shaking. “I saw Roland Gover on TV this morning, talking about them boys in the river.”

“Yeah,” Ron said, “that’s all anybody in town can talk about, them washing away. They’ll be remembered for that.”

“If it was me, ” Jamie said, “I wouldn’t talk about it at all.” She reached for another piece of toast, smothered it with jelly. Marian stared into her eggs. Memory, blue and brown, soaked into her bones.

She would trim back the dogwood in the fall, shape it to withstand the weather, mulch it to protect the roots. Flashes like these came often, and always without warning. The creek would rise again: there would be more downed branches, more bread to buy, more and more to tell.






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