Lobelia Flood, June 1953, part I

(1)

Even if the rain had not fallen so suddenly and the river risen so fast, and even if God in a dream like daylight had forewarned her nightly, and for a month, and even had delivered by the National Post Service, Lobelia Branch, straight to our door, plans and lumber enough to build an ark, much less a skiff, as well as the labor to get it done, and furthermore commanded upon pain of everlasting damnation that she enter it, my Anna still would have never stirred, not even so much as a stalk of Indian paintbrush in the summer breezelessness. Such was the stubborness of the woman I had elected to live with. This is what I am telling myself, at least.

Once a storm gets going, I mean advances from an indolent afternoon drizzle to more of a general patter, you can forget about sleep in our house. The rain drums deafeningly on the tin roof, and by dawn, having lain awake all night, you begin to mistake your own skull for one of those pebble-filled cans the children rattle on parade days. And it’s a shame too because a summer storm is nothing to begrudge. Especially in those same days of outlandish muggy weather so that the humidity finally breaks, and then things can finally draw a good breath. Those times Anna knits by the open window and I smoke on the porch, and the murmur and the cool makes things restful. Fills up the silence anyhow.

But by the midnight of that night the roof had been thundering so unendingly that I felt my worser half arousing, so that every little sound had me cursing under my breath. Then a few heavy knocks sent me to curse aloud, “What, and now the blasted wind, too?” until I could not decide whether to pull the blanket over my head and weep or fling it from me in consternation. The knocking came again, and I guess it was neither regular nor disregular enough to be the wind, so Anna said, “I think you had better go see who’s calling on us, Hoyt.” So I swung my legs out and sat there thinking awhile about getting up, like I must always do. Then the knocking comes again and I go.

I don’t move so quick. I shuffled along and tugged the cord of that naked bulb above the door, but nothing. Except more dark. The knocking came again and I hollered, “Christ, hold up!” then stepped with mighty caution into the hall, with my hands outstretched most like I was asking alms. So I went along and got to the front door. When I opened it, however, nothing greeted me except a roaring darkness, which I imagined must have sounded like the sea, and no lights to speak of. I could not so much as espy the outline of a tree. Wind indeed, I thought, returning to my bed. But before I took more than a few steps I heard the knocks again and was certain they came from the kitchen, for there weren’t more than two doors in the house. So I made my way slow stepping, the knocks raining, to the rear of the house and unlatched the door and flung it open against another emptiness just screaming like you would expect in the caverns of hell. No one. “Son of a bitch,” I curse. For it’s always just when you think you have a thing figured. But it weren’t more than a moment after I shut out the storm again that I hear a vigorous tapping at some window or other. I listened hard against the protesting roof. At a second flurry of taps I located it as the living-room. Could just be a tree branch. I think that first. Yet I’m already invested in this thing, so I go. Nevertheless this is it, I said to myself, if I find no one there I ain’t looking again. I won’t be played by those hooligans. For my property had become a regular playground and shrine of vandalism to those town boys. You break up one unholy game of dice in back of the church on a Sunday and they keep at you like a horsefly in August, which is all they are anyhow, I suppose. Not a human fellow alive would have such disrespect as to scrawl the filth they have scrawled, and disrupt a man’s sleep, and such. I pulled back the curtains, but it was too dark to see through the glass, and by the time I hoisted the thing up anyhow I no longer cared and so was not disappointed with another absence.

Suddenly Anna started hollering for me like she was bit by an asp and I made for the bed-room as I could, which weren’t much, calling to her in a panic, “I’m coming, I’m coming.” Then when I get there gasping, “What is it, Anna?” I see Ridge Boggs half hanging in the open window, steam rising off his soaked shirt and him holding a flashlight to his misshapen face. “You got something against me, Hoyt?” he says. “So that was you been knocking all over,” I said, and was about to make my apologies, but he broke in. “Listen Hoyt, the river is lapping at my stoop, a full five foot beyond the bank. Radio says we got to clear out, since before long we’ll be casting for trout in our own kitchens, you understand? And your house ain’t more than a couple feet up slope from mine.” I said nothing, sort of digesting in a painful silence like after too big a meal. “You all need to clear out,” he said again. “My truck is full though. Ha ha, in fact we’re threating to strap Kylie to the roof. But I expect by the time we get up the mountain and back it’ll be too late, so you’ll have to make your own arrangements. I reckon the road will be washed out.” He stopped, then turned to Anna and said real mournfully, “I’m sorry, dear.” “It’s alright, Ridge,” she said, “thanks for checking in on us.” He ducked out, but a moment later stuck his head in again and said, smiling, “A five hundred year flood they’re calling it. How about that!” And then he was gone, swallowed into that yawning howl of rain. I could not believe our valley would wallow submerged five hundred years, if that is what he meant.

Anna slid the window to. I looked at her the best I could in the darkness, though she weren’t more than one shadow perched on the edge of another, and probably with that quilt all swathed around her too, as usual. For a moment we existed to one another as simply a cough and a sigh. Such is the isolating power of grief. Still, I could feel her frowning. I did not much care for it. So after a bit of that uncomfortableness I breached the pause and said, “Well?” By way of answer she grabbed my arm, with that obnoxious, awkward pawingness which I guess happens as one ages, and pulled herself up. She took her cane, which was leaning against the nightstand. Truth is I could have answered my own “Well?” and she knew it. The arrangements Ridge had suggested we make might as well have been for our own funerals, coffins lain out and nailed shut with encouraging words. What did he expect two aged folk to do without a truck and with spines bent like a torsion spring? I watched Anna as she shuffled out the room.

Almost like an hour later she eased herself into the stuffed armchair and took her needle-work from the basket beside it. “Open the window for me, Hoyt,” she said, “you know how I love to hear the rain.” But she was playing with me, for I had forgot to shut that window in my hurry to get, and the wet was blowing in. “I’ll open it,” I said, and going over I found her forehead and put my lips on it. Then I sat in the chair beside her and took my cigarettes from the table. “You go on the porch for that,” she said, but without meaning it. “What? There’s some mighty loud downpouring, Anna. I can’t but mishear you,” I said and I struck a match. It was a rare pleasure, let me tell you, smoking indoors without Anna saying a word, and imagining the little flowerettes of smoke twisting towards the ceiling. So relaxed was I, in fact, that it weren’t more than a minute after I snubbed out the smoke that the terrible outcry of the roof softened into a sort of sleepy lullaby-hum, and I was dreaming in my chair. Dreaming of cicadas, sands, leaves and faucets and anything I guess which makes a general monotonous sound. There have been windy days on Lake Loam, enough to push waves against my legs while casting a little off the rocky shore, and I dreamt of these with their slop and splash. And I guess my memory reached a little further back, for soon I was living that day again when as a boy I went to get crayfish from under the rocks to bait and I kept wading out one step further, one step further, because the water was irregular warm, and the air cool, which felt good, going on out, until I finally abandoned the whole thing without realizing it and found myself floating fully clothed on my back, thinking of nothing. My ears filled up with the soft whispering water and I discovered that the less effort I made the better I stood afloat, till I were as limp as a boiled cabbage. Then somehow I fell asleep that way. And somehow I woke up at the bottom among the weedy rocks, the sun a gold fleck distorted by the several foot of water above me. Somehow it took me a peaceful moment to waken to the terror that I weren’t yet dead. Under such recollections my sleep dilated.

That was how I wakened again. It weren’t only Anna tugging at my sleeve and going “Hoyt! Hoyt!” that was contributing to the unsettling nature of my dreams, but after digging my fists into my eyes I felt the whole room was sunk in water which was lapping against my ankles. It wasn’t a moment more before I saw it, too, since that was when the lightning began. One bright, thunderous sputter was enough to show me some of my possessions floating past, like they had somewhere better to be. “Lord, Anna,” I cried, getting up from the chair. “Did you just now wake yourself, too?” But she grabbed my hand and said, “Sit down, Hoyt. No, I’ve been up. I was feeling it rise over my feet inch by slathery inch.” That took me a moment. Then I said, “You’ve just been sitting there,” and she said, “Yes,” and I said, “Just feeling the water rise,” and she said, “Yes,” real matter-of-fact. Then by another flash of lightning I could see that she weren’t partaking in my anxiety and I muttered, “Nevermind.” She said, “Good, because you’re disturbing my knitting.” That angered me.“Then why’d you wake me,” I snapped. But she said nothing. I was still somewhat groggy from that bit of sleep and absently lit another cigarette, feeling disquieted. There are so many ways a man can miss the obvious. Here everything I owned was ready to wash out the door and I was trying to understand how such an old memory, reclaimed through the ghosts of a dream, could make a man feel like he had been thrust into a game of high stakes without being made to understand the rules. As if it were the memory. I was kind of stuck in that lurch for a while, just smoking, when I happened upon my foolishness. I turned to Anna and said, “We are really going to die tonight, ain’t we?” By the flickering of those clamorous flashes I could see that she had paused in her knitting. “We are going to die tonight,” she said. I snubbed out the cigarette and lit another.

Until then the fact of it had not occurred to me, don’t ask me to explain. But suddenly I was ready to get, for I weren’t yet ready to die. I felt every inch of me revolting against that fact like it was a putrid morsel no sensible man would swallow. That is to say, in an instant I had resolved to pull Anna from her chair, shake her, embrace her, and then perhaps see what could be done. “We can weather this yet,” I cried. I was rising from my chair with as much explosiveness as I could muster, which weren’t considerable. But Anna just sighed and took my hand again. There weren’t any use in arguing. It was a thin illumination those lightning strikes afforded, but I saw her well enough. She went along knitting with a wool completely soaked from the rain coming through the open window. Her hair hung like damp vines along her pale face with the moisture beading along her cheeks and dripping from the tip of her nose. One moment I could of mistook her for one of the waterman’s fairy daughters, calcified in their unending loveliness, which sing men to drowning, and the next moment she was uglier than I ever remembered. That was when I really become afraid, the way she sat there all impassive, her eyes black marbles, the rain spraying all around her, like looking into the eyes of them cotton-mouths you come upon near the creeks and springs. It was as if I had not know this woman for the majority of my years, and something like the Lord’s conviction was telling me she would see me drowned. So it occurred to me that this was why she woke me up, and I shivered head to toe. I reckoned she wanted me to absorb all of whatever fear and misery there was to be had. I tried to shake the thought, but it weren’t going anywhere. Yet it weren’t as though she were without reason.

I heard it said once that with women there ain’t a problem they got that can’t be solved by pregnancy. That might mostly be the case, but with Anna it was the other way around. It was all those pregnancies that robbed her her joy. By reason that not one of our children has out lived us. The first two I suppose weren’t nobodies fault. There was the miscarriaged one after three months, which has been forever unnamed, and the other one, Iona, she was a still born. The third we had almost half a year. He come out just fine and she called him Reston. I had never seen Anna so happy, as if this child had completely put to rest for her the darkness of the preceding years. That might be why she named him so. She was always coddling him and kissing him, knitted him whole drawers full of sweaters and socks. It made the house right sunny, with blankets everywhere and those new sort of sweet smells and the way Anna was always humming and singing. Things were fine. And then he got the whooping cough. We didn’t know what it was, and had we, we were still too poor to have something done. It was just the runny nose and the sneezing for a week. But then those terrible coughs, thunderous in my opinion for such a small creature, the force of which turned his face blotchy red and purple, like spoilt meat. Then in the ensuing calm there was that squealing “whoop” when he could finally draw a good breath. I could not accept that such a pathetic sound should signify relief. There were three ever worsening weeks of that. Sometimes he would vomit afterwards, and then just lay there whining, too tuckered out to cry. He nursed less and less and Anna, not drained of her milk, was drained again of her happiness. Until one day when she was bouncing the child a little and making faces, to solace the both of them, Reston laughed for the first time in days, a good little giggle. That giggle led to the worst fit of coughing yet, from which he could get no air and soon died. I watched the color bleed right out of Anna’s face, till the flesh could have been bleached bone. That was nobody’s fault as far as I could see, but it is not the nature of grief to let things pass, but rather to pin to something, anything, the principle fault, and then try to destroy it. Since it is hard to hold a disease accountable, I suspect she set the blame upon herself. And I watched her waste away. She would not let me touch her for years, though I tried to persuade her it could yet be a source of good. She insisted it were proved sin. But fortunately she took to drinking, and so at times forgot her grief. Thus after a while she found herself pregnant a fourth time. We called this one Mellie. And thank God but whatever spider there once was gnawing and sucking at Anna’s vitality was utter vanquished, like an impervious demarcation had concealed from her her past without perturbing the continuity of her being. So that the happiness did return to our home. And we had Mellie a little more than five years.

Forgive me, I can hardly speak of this much longer. But this is the point I been coming to. That is, where the first two weren’t nobody’s doing, nor could the third really be helped, Anna has forever held me accountable for the passing of our fourth, and she might indeed be right to see me drowned. She seemed almost relieved to finally have someone to blame, thus absolving herself of the looming notion she were cursed. I tried to defend myself the first couple years, though she never accused me with words. But finally I no longer bothered. For me, it was like those equations in school which always unsettled me. First there were the numbers which a man can reckon, and then there was the “=” sign which lets one know things are balanced and as they should be. Fine. But it was always that mysterious x or y, the variable, it was called. It never seemed to me to matter the promise of a resolution if a fellow lacks the power to bring it about, because I could never account for its identity. If a man cannot account for a single variable, a promised answer, on the page of book, when the methods to do so are learnable and tried, how must he account for the infinite variables of life? But for Anna, schooled at the University of Grief, every how or what concerning children must simply be reckoned. I had only turned my back for a minute, and when I looked again Mellie was floating face down in the water in the lake, her brown hair spread out, her blue dress buoying, her stillness like the visible aspect of a distant mourning dove’s cooing I was listening to hard, so as not to have to see. A leaf twisted on the surface at her side. I judged the ripple ringing outwards and away was carrying off her spirit. Or was her spirit, escaping. And I had never felt so without strength.

And now Anna was seeking the same demise, a lungful of liquid. Hell, I am right fucking sick of water. I called to her a few times, but there was nothing to be done. We were resolved, after almost sixty years of having elected to travel together, to take separate paths, she towards the shadows and I towards the light. “Well, I plan on being here tomorrow,” I murmured, not having the courage to speak at full voice. I figured it was not my place to remind her of what she well knew, I mean the severity of God’s judgment on the suicide. So I shifted my mind from the disturbing impressions which had been beclouding it in order to consider the turn things were taking. That is, the ever rising water and the unceasing rain. For there ain’t nothing like a real nightmare to wither up the ones that ain’t.

The water was cold for it being summer. I stretched my legs out onto the table to be free of it. Then I began to enumerate my options, which were few. Natural logic said to go up.What we had upstairs was a little more than an attic and a little less than a room. It was a sort of loft I had expanded and used as a workshop, a decoratory gable with a window. A wooden staircase led to it from the kitchen. It would do.

Next, of course, was to make some manner of preparations. Who knew how long the water would stay? And there was no one I could think of who would bother looking for us. I mean for me, since Anna would be drowned. I knew I had a few things up there already, my .22 with a box of shells, some knives and tools, various pieces of wood, blankets, a lantern and flashlights, a radio, batteries, other unknown and perhaps useful items, and under a tarp in the corner a gallon jug of whiskey which I sipped from now and then. I don’t know why I hid it beneath the tarp, Anna could not climb up those stairs. That all seemed sufficient. So the only thing lacking was some manner of remaining afloat a few days, in case the water rose that high. And a paddle, or something with which to navigate. Though I never expected it to come to that. There was always the window to climb out and the roof to rest on. But at the very worst there was the big plastic trashbin which I expected I could sit in and use a plank to paddle along. Though at the time I never did consider how I would get it through the window. In the pantry were dozens of cans of food, beans and soups and things, as well as some jugs for drinking water. The jugs were useless though, for the pipes were already flooded with muck. Still, it was enough. I don’t eat much, like a bird pecking. I reckoned I would drink whatever fluids were in the cans.

I was still sitting next to Anna as I ran through all this in my mind. I spent considerable time imagining myself in that plastic trashbin, going along among the treetops and the chimneys, pushing through the flotsam and the wreckage of the world. Finally the water was lapping at my feet again, though they were on the table, and I decided it was about time to get. So I trudged to the kitchen, sloshing and kicking past things. I could find no bag to help me, so I piled onto the table all the things I would need. The can opener and about twenty cans of stuff, even one of olives. Then I took the ends of the tablecloth, wrapped it all up, slung it over my back and struggled up the stairs. And that was about all I planned on doing. The attic was dark. By feel I grabbed the matches off my workbench and lit the lantern. I kept it lit long enough to check for the things I figured I would find, and finding them I snuffed it out, then collapsed into a rocking chair near the window, feeling uncommonly fatigued. I drew back the curtain to let the lightning in. My head was in a state.

All my life I have enjoyed difficult decisions, for the pleasure one gets in thinking a thing through. And in this way I have managed to remove myself from many painful things by reducing them to a series of small considerations to which I only need say “yes” or “no”, and thus proceeding, willy-nilly arrive at my conclusion with a sense of finality, as if it were someone else who done it. But I was then deciding whether to stay in the attic, or to return downstairs and stay with Anna as long as I dared. It all hinged on what might be a measure of selfishness, which I worded in my mind as such: would it be less painful to have a last goodbye, or to begin at once insulating myself? Though I weren’t so much that selfish, doing all this while the dim water rose up around her and she sat there combining those saturated strings into a sweater or a cap no babe would ever wear. She weren’t no insentient rock and could come if she wanted. But I had eyes to see that she had every intention of letting the water surmount her as if she was one. Lord knows there are warmer ways to part. But calmly surveying the situation, one could see there weren’t but her sentiments and mine, and neither one was worth the trumping. If a soul makes peace and chooses death I suppose it ain’t another’s business to tell it otherwise. And if there was pleasure in it for her, to watch the water drown out the rats and recollections which had harassed her so long, well then it might not have been the solace I sought to give her, but it was at least a solace I did not have to rob from her. Realizing this, I reckoned the real selfishness would be to try and change her mind and that it would be best to just stay put, that no more goodbye was necessary. But I wanted to kiss her once more.

West Virginia is the same all over, Lobelia being a fine example. Everything is built in the hollers and narrow valleys, going very little up the hill slopes. The necessary elements are, in this order, a river, a railway, a road and a row or two of houses, or maybe three depending on the steepness of the slope. Then in the hills above there are the huge caverns hollowed out by coal mining that, once abandoned, fill up with rain. Of course they can only hold so much before they burst and the water comes rushing down. That, combined with the river rising, makes the towns like a chute or a trough to guide the floods right on top of us.

I had only taken a few steps down the stairs, setting my foot careful at each awful sputter of lightning, when I heard a rumbling. It weren’t a moment more before I felt it, too. I thought there might yet be time. “I’m coming, I’m coming!” I cried out and tried to hurry down, but I had misjudged. Once again I was too late. The first wall of water slammed into the house. If I had not been holding on to the railing with such tenacity I would have tumbled down the stairs in a heap. I felt the whole house shift a foot off the foundation. Below me I heard wood cracking and glass shattering and a rushing as loud and furious as at the Winston Falls, which was the inundation of the house. Water began boiling up the stairs like it was after me. I hesitated a moment, for I wanted yet to snatch my kiss. Then I turned back up the stairs.

I am a fool for not anticipating such an event. Here I thought the water would just calmly rise and calmly sink again, like a tide or leavened dough. So when I scrambled back into the attic, on hands and knees panting in the center of the room, the provisions for my plan seemed right childish. I knew the next wall of water would strike any minute, for flash floods always come in twos. I did not think the house could take it. Already the sighs and screeches and moans of stressing wood sounded all around me, while the whole structure was rattling like the coal trains were chugging through the kitchen. There weren’t much to be done. And it was total dark, without trace of lightning nor thunder in the general tumult. I figured the best I could do was hold on to something sturdy, lest when the next bunch of water strike I fall and get hurt. So I managed to take hold of my heavy work bench, built of Englemann Oak, a thing of beauty. But that proved a mistake. Even its solid components were quaking. Like the whinnying and gallop of a thousand apocalyptic stallions rid by angry angels was the hiss of rushing waters and the rumbling. I went to my knees and held tight. I did not bother to pray, but I did beg Anna to forgive me. Her soaked shade was no doubt rising past me that moment, instantly enlightened by death as to the things I had done. The things I could not tell her living. Then the flood wall struck like a thunderclap. The house pushed immediately loose of its moorings. The work bench, which was resting against the wall the waters struck, slammed into my face and knocked me backwards flat. My head swum. I only had a stunned moment to taste the iron in my mouth and run my tongue along where a few of my teeth had got knocked loose. I spat them out. Everything around me hissed with the whistling intake of breath, like before a plunge. Then the back end of the house slipped down the slope. The supports, broke from their bases, ceased to bear. I felt the whole thing crumbling beneath me like a house of cards. The attic angled downward, sinking atop its failed stanchions. And yet it weren’t like there was endless space beneath me, for the work bench toppled over and there was solid enough beneath me to crush my legs against all that plummeting oak. If the mark of a clever man is the discovery of new things, at that moment I could rightly be called a genius of pain. It was as if it had no location, and it were so severe it almost didn’t hurt, like I was simply standing in awe of it, going, “Wow!”. In my slobbering, toothless mouth, defeated and whimpering, I mumbled Anna’s name on my lips. Then something like an invitation come out of the darkness and struck my skull. The door opened and I entered in. Dark.

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~ by Peter on May 29, 2008.

8 Responses to “Lobelia Flood, June 1953, part I”

  1. As good a short story as I’ve read. And I’ve read a lot.

  2. More epic than short story, you reveal the truths of an entire life through the metaphor of flood. Deserves a place amongst the fine literature of our time.

  3. Hi Jo and Bob, those are really nice compliments, thank you.

    Do you really think the story is that good? I’m still not sure that my “redneck” inflection in the writing really works. And I think just about every other element of the story (plot, characterization, etc.) is done somewhat sloppily. If you have any suggestions about what you think could be improved please let me know.

    Thanks,
    Peter

  4. Hi, Peter… voice is tricky, especially in first person. After reading your comment, I went back and re-read it. There are a couple of places where the verbiage belies a ‘redneck inflection’. In the second paragraph, I doubt a redneck would use the terms ‘indolent’ or ‘pebbles’, probably opting for ‘lazy’ and ‘rocks’. But other than that, it sounded authentic to me, and I have a good bit of experience with rednecks. You speak of ‘sloppy’ plot and characterization and I didn’t notice it. These two people impressed me as being quiet folks who sought to maintain their dignity in the presence of overwhelming odds that might have caused most of us to wilt under the reality of the horror. I wish I’d written it.

  5. You’re kidding, right? Sloppy plot, no, not at all, I read this with one breath, if that makes sense, I’m trying to communicate the precision of the prose, how it’s like a wire, taut (always this, your prose). I reread it with an editor’s eagle eye and found a couple of tiny off notes……..espy the outline of a tree, espy, too victorian melodrama, obnoxious, awkward pawingness, I don’t like both adjectives here and finally would he say ‘fucking sick of water’…….a man of his age, I don’t know, fucking seems a little too strong. Other than that, superb. Wish I’d written it too 🙂

  6. These are great suggestions, thank you. Details, for me, are always the core of writing. I will make these changes.

  7. Well, I would agree with you. Do you mean you meant the whole thing to sound redneck, “and thank God but whatever spider there once was gnawing and sucking at Anna’s vitality was utter vanquished, like an impervious demarcation had concealed from her her past without perturbing the continuity of her being.” That sounds more like you than you do sometimes, the wonderful grace and elegance in the syntax and particularity of expression, that’s you, not some redneck.There is an awful lot of detail in the description too and I am unsure of the purpose of most of it, the story kind of meanders around it. In fact the whole piece seems sort of caught in two minds about what it wants to be. Beautifully written, goes without saying, I’m just not sure where it is in the world.

  8. Hey Paul, I always look forward to your comments and I feel like it’s been a while since you have visited here. Thanks for stopping by!

    I was so happy with this story while I was writing, and now I see it as a failed experiment. Oh well . . .

    I still have to write the second half of this story. I’ll try and tone both the “redneck” inflection and the excessive descriptive/lyrical writing. I think a simpler approach might make this work. I hope.

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