Our Lady of the Flood by Cynthia C. Rand
Jane Shelton Winthrop wore her dead husband’s waders on her many trips to the barn. After the hurricane, strange weather descended, and a steady rain filled the land with water. Jane did not know it would rain for six days and nights. The first three days she trudged to the barn with many packs on her back and carried supplies, into the loft, knowing Jerry would’ve been able to carry much more. Every step through the rising water was heavy and by the end of each day her thighs ached and shook from their work. On those first nights she lit the lantern and ate peanut butter from the jar with a spoon and sat on the edge of the loft with legs dangling while staring at the crazy flag, which hung high and dry on the opposite wall above the entrance to the barn. She wondered why, after fifteen years of Jerry being dead, she hadn’t bothered to take the ugly thing down and burn it.
Each day she carried more food, medicine, and camping supplies into the loft of the enormous tobacco barn. She regretted not fetching up all the canned food in mason jars from the cellar on the first day. She wondered if her house would hold up with such a swelling weight of water and if the glass jars of food down in the cellar would float or explode. She was a tiny woman, barely five feet tall, and Jerry’s waders came all the way up to the top of her thighs. She wondered about the rain and a feeling of dread came over her when the battery radio only brought in static and her cell phone wouldn’t work. With the water nearly four feet high she knew she would have to figure out another way to navigate it besides this sloshing through on foot. She had an overwhelming sense of urgency. She was terrified of water and had never been a strong swimmer. She was afraid of lakes, ponds and pools but never afraid of the ocean or rivers mostly because she knew that if you could float, then moving water would carry you somewhere else, like back to land.
She surveyed her survival provisions. The only thing playing on any radio station was constant static. The FM dials she tuned into, and even the AM waves where emergency broadcast systems should be calling out warnings and alerts or reports, were devoid of human sound. There was nothing. Just scratchy static, which gnawed at her nerves. Something bigger than a hurricane or floods is here her gut instinct whispered to her. She did not want to listen to that, but knew better than to ignore it. How long could she really last up here? Two weeks, maybe three? A month or more if careful? Jerry’s old timey jon boat hung untouched at the top of the barn in a rack of chains. Jane climbed down, found the WD-40 and a taller ladder and climbed up. She treated the chains with the oil and began gently working the pulley so the rusty chain would give without cracking. This took most of her fourth day but by late afternoon she had the jon boat down and floating on the water in the barn, which was now above her waist. The outboard motor had long since disappeared. Jane checked the boat for rust or damage and found nothing but cobwebs and dust, which she cleared away. She threw in hay and food for the goats. She took up the oars and paddled out of the barn toward the higher hill.
Only eight goats remained. She put fresh hay and food into their trough and said a prayer for them to hold on longer because the rain couldn’t last forever and the water would recede if the rains would just stop. At the last minute before going back she decided to grab the two kids: John Boy and Mary Ellen, and also the Nanny. She fought crying while she turned her back on the remnant of the herd and guided her boat to the barn. She tied off the boat to the ladder post.
Carrying the goats into the loft was difficult. The kids she took up one at a time in her arms but Nanny was ill about the boat ride and mad about being carried and Jane could hardly lift her. She ended up making a harness and pulled the nanny up into the loft by slinging a rope over one of the rafters. Once there, Nanny calmed down, as she was ravenous, and ate the hay. That night, by the light of an oil lantern, Jane shifted hay bales and supplies around to accommodate her goats. She knew she had to put everything she didn’t want chewed up into the rafters, and she spent hours hoisting individual bundles of food, sacks of various other necessities, and her books.
She went to the corner of the loft where she had hidden her books from Jerry so many years ago to fetch them out and bundle them to raise up higher. She remembered when he came home from a meeting one night with a list of books that he said must be removed from their home. She responded that this was America and she had the freedom to read what she wanted and that she was smart enough not to be brainwashed and that the very act of burning books just reeked of communism and fascism. He took on that pale calm look, the one she was all too familiar with, that white quiet before the storm. He wanted them burned and he went out to the fire pit and started a fire.
She knew back then that it was not only him being dogmatic about his newfound politics and religion and friends but also it was Jerry just finding one more way to take her down a notch. There wasn’t anything else she loved more in the world than to read. While he was out at the pit she scurried frantically from shelf to shelf pulling out her favorites and stuffing them down deep into the old sofa, in fat armchairs, in the back of the closet, even in the pan drawer below the stove, behind the canned food in the shelves, and behind the washing machine in the laundry room. These were places he would not look.
In order to appease him that night, she pulled out many books to burn, whether they were on the list or not, and stacked books high on the kitchen table, then helped him carry them out. In his white rage and haste he didn’t even check his list or her stacks of books. She watched the orange heat engulf words that she cherished. The black night was lit only by the flames and flickering sparks beyond where Jerry stood, and high up on a flag post only the white tilted cross in the upper corner of the dark heart on the massive flag could be seen dancing a peculiar celebration, glowing in the light of this ill-intended fire. But he would have to do a lot more than build a fire to take those words from her.
One by one, she smuggled the surviving books from their hiding places and carried them up into the barn loft. During his life, when he traveled to other bigger conferences in the Midwest and even to California, and when he was gone for more than a day, she’d climb into the loft and unroll the books from inside her grandmother’s quilt and read for hours. Then, after his untimely death, she chose to continue to come to this place to read in the face of the ugly flag on the opposite wall.
On the morning of the fifth day Jane woke yet again to the constant sound of rain and of goats bleating. Nanny was smart and stayed back from the edge of the loft. Jane swept out the loft floor and tried to teach the little kids to be frightened of the edge. She didn’t have to try too hard for the small creatures had some kind of instinct to stay away from the high drop-off. Even so, she spent this fifth day building a banister rail to the loft’s ledge out of random lumber stored in the old stalls below but had trouble finding good nails and a saw. This job took her all day to finish. Exhausted and overwhelmed, Jane finally sat down in the loft of the barn. The old hay in the loft made her sneeze.
That night she fell asleep reading the poetry of John Keats by flashlight.
After Jerry’s death years ago she had built a smaller barn for her goats and she redesigned the surrounding pastures. She used this large tobacco barn for storing the hay and farm equipment. The ugly flag now made her uncomfortable, made her remember the FBI crawling all over the place, and the media arriving. It made her mad because she had been silent, trying to remain ignorant of the atrocities Jerry and his friends made happen with their money and politics. He wanted to be buried rolled up in this flag. She told him she would see to it but knew as the words crossed her lips in a whisper that she would not.
Jane wondered what Jerry would think of this storm, and what he would do. They agreed on very little in their twelve years together. He would not have wanted to venture out and rescue anyone. He would have said that the storm left his barn and house standing because it came to clear away no-gooders and the lesser folk. He would say that he and Jane would survive because they were chosen by God to be leaders in the new world that would rise soon. Jane shuddered. That night she fell asleep reading the poetry of John Keats by flashlight.
On the morning of the sixth day of rain, Nanny awoke Jane by nibbling on the pages of the book she still clasped in her hands. The water below in the barn was now halfway up the ladder and so Jane did not leave the loft at all that day. She looked out through her binoculars from the high window of the barn toward the tin roof shed on the hill. The remainder of her herd was gone. She mourned for the rest of the day, mad at herself for not fetching all the goats into the loft. But how could she have crammed them into such a space?
Jane heard the screeching sound of wood splintering. She climbed down the ladder and slid into the jon boat. Getting out of the barn was only possible due to the boat now, unless she chose to swim. Her property seemed to be overcome by a lake the size of an ocean. She untied the boat and rowed toward the opening of the barn, where she stopped and hastily grabbed hold of the doorframe, almost causing the boat to swerve around. She held on as she viewed her own house further down the hill. She watched, frozen, while the roof and the boards of the walls of the house exhaled and shifted and gave way to its exhaustive hold to earth. The house had held up for six days, but now it was overcome by water’s weight inside its walls. The roof had remained visible. From up in the barn loft the goats bleated and Nanny trembled at the loud cracking apart and monstrous sound the house made.
Well there goes that, Jane whispered, but she felt real fear for the first time since the hurricane hit. She turned the boat back into the barn, roped it up to the ladder and climbed into the loft. She fell asleep rolled up in the quilt with the two little goats for her only companions. Nanny seemed to want her own space and stood watch for a while chewing in the dark. Around midnight Jane woke to a sudden sound. The rain had stopped and the silence from it was overwhelming.
She got up and looked outside at the pitch-black night from the barn loft. Everything black, where there should be a sky, where there should be stars or earth or land or sheds or a tree line. Nothing. Just blackness. Her stomach growling broke the silent spell and then Nanny’s bleating reminded her that she hadn’t milked the goat earlier that day. After lighting the lantern and milking, she drank heartily. She tried the radio again, found nothing but static, and her cell phone still was not working. She swept out the loft and turned the lantern off and sat staring into blackness.
On the seventh day she watched and waited for the water to recede and by afternoon it had dropped one and a half feet. She lowered the jon boat and prepared to take off to town with some supplies and tools. Just to see if anyone was around or needed help. She was curious and wondered about survivors and stacked extra water bottles and life jackets into the case of tools on the boat. Never had she seen earth turn to water so fast. She called up a farewell toward the loft and ordered Nanny to be smart and watchful. She promised them she would return later.
She paddled toward town in the boat. There was no sunshine or blue sky. Just greyness all around like more rain might come soon. The dip of her oar in the water smacked loud against the eerie lack of noise. She wondered about the absence of people. The storm brought rooftops off brick houses and trees down on top of those. Wooden houses and mobile homes were leveled into the water and mud. Now flood waters teased up what was left of the scrap. Churches were leveled. Stores were heaps of glass and ruined new junk. Everything seemed to float and orbit in the water the color of brain matter. She stared at a Nine West shoe floating by and a small white microwave followed behind, bobbing like a duck.
Electrical wires were wrapped in trees that were now a mass of tangled branches and splintered shards. She felt a pounding through the veins in her neck as she continued paddling through the town and found herself utterly alone. She thought that maybe most of the townspeople would’ve taken cover in the older shelter during the storm so she rowed to the Old Post Office near the center of town that had been converted into a historical museum. She remembered the storm siren had gone off and knew that most of the town would run to the basement of the Old P.O., as everyone still called it. That was a practiced part of the regular emergency plan. She lived two miles out and had heard the siren in the distance but most people living out on the edges and on farms surrounding the town had their own storm shelters or cellars or basements. Now she sat in the boat for a while looking up at the exterior of this two-story structure built of marble slab. She knew the basement extended beyond its base with tunnels for supplies and extra people. It could hold a great many folk and she knew that fifty years ago it was a fallout shelter and that it was rarely used except for practice drills for hurricane storm warnings in recent years.
She tied up the old boat outside to a surviving lamppost. Strange images kept surfacing in her mind. A basket floated by. She thought she heard something from it like a meowing and she glanced to it again and saw nothing. She remembered the honeysuckle baskets made with her sister as children. They placed their dolls in such baskets to watch them float down the stream, running alongside to rescue baby Moses, as princesses of Egypt and not as the daughters of Appalachia they really were. Images of home, back in the mountains, continued to come to her. She questioned why she had ever moved so far down from the mountains into a land of red clay and almost flatness and then she remembered why. Jerry.
She thought she heard her sister’s laughter. Not grown up laughter but that childish giggle that came from playing hide-and-go-seek when one tries to not be heard but cannot contain herself. She stood still in deep water as it swirled around her and looked at the historical museum.
It took all of her strength to force open the solid old doors against the water that had built up inside and she waded in with slow heavy steps. Glass windows had shattered and imploded from the wind’s force during the storm. Glass cases that held the towns’ historical treasures looked as though a giant had slung them around. The shards of those cases left seemed like broken leaky fish tanks half-filled with a chaotic mess of arrowheads, copper trinkets and broken pottery all jumbled together in some kind of soupy water. A statue of a soldier was close to coming loose from its strong base and now leaned off kilter as though ready to free fall into the disaster. A quilt from the earliest settlers of Hammery, displayed on a wall, had been stripped loose at one corner and hung in shreds.
She found the stairs that led down to the underground fallout shelter. The stairwell was filled with water. The downward steps were impassable and so she returned to the boat and found the diving light in the bottom of the supplies bin. Strapping it on she struggled back through the museum to the stair well and she dove, found the shelter door and banged as hard as one could under water several times, then swam back up for air then dove and tried again. No answer. No one banged back. She half swam and half climbed the underwater stairs. Again she went out to the boat, and found the crowbar. She thought she ought to hurry but her feet couldn’t rush through this kind of water.
Dread came over her and would not leave her alone. She was overwhelmed with doubt, but knew that if people were in that shelter, they should have come out on their own after the storm. The fact that they hadn’t made themselves known and were not out wading through the water around town troubled her. What if the shelter door was faulty and everyone had drowned? She almost put the crowbar back into the boat. What would she do with a town full of dead folk? How does one bury people in ground that’s under water?
She chastised herself for being morbid and took the crowbar down under the water to the shelter doors. She wedged it open and saw that her fears were founded in truth. At the entrance of the jammed door dozens of people had tried to claw their way past each other to get out. Jane swam back up the stairwell and surfaced for air while bodies slowly clogged the now open entrance below. She went back down to examine the door. She did not want to enter into the shelter past the door for fear it would shut behind her and she would meet a fate similar to the people of the town. The bodies tumbling out into the now released water from the bunker were bloated and bobbing heavily at the base of the door. Their faces were paler than white gray and their expressions like withering jack-o-lanterns in the yellow glow of her diving light. Jane turned away to run and flailed around panicking in the water as she half swam, half climbed up the underwater stairs when her friend, the mayor’s wife, Dot, or Dot’s body, swirled up in slow motion brushing the side of her waders.
Eyes wide open, new streaks in her hair, blonde in front and red and in the back, the chopped up spikey hairstyle now floated softly around her face and Jane noticed the clownish style and remembered thinking about two weeks ago when she had first seen Dot in this new hairdo that she herself wouldn’t be caught dead in.
Jane struggled up to the surface near the stairwell for air then dove down and tried to drag the dead weight of Dot’s body up with her and found it impossible. She grabbed Dot’s hands and noticed with horror that the new acrylic nails were clawed down to raw bloody bone at the fingertips. Her friend had fought hard against a concrete ceiling or door to get out. Jane let go of Dot and tried to close the door while trying to push the tumble of bodies back into the fallout room. She no longer had the strength, for her arms were growing weak and her hands numbing. The massive door would not close. The strange and bloated bodies all around her seemed as though they were suspended in outer space instead of water. She knew she would come back with helpers for carrying up the dead later, if or when the water receded. If she could find any helpers. She swam up the waterlogged stairwell and climbed out on the main floor gasping for air.
She realized she had left the crowbar below but could not will herself into one more dive down. She numbly dragged through the water, leaving the museum behind and the doors wide open. She climbed back into her boat and removed her waders to dump the water out then put them back on. She untied the boat and drifted on water that seemed to decide its own current. She leaned forward with her head in her hands that were wrinkled as prunes and tried not to think about the bodies of the townspeople downstairs at the museum.
She wondered if something other than a hurricane had happened. She speculated that the nuclear plant thirty miles to the south of Hammery could have exploded during the hurricane or had a monstrous leak. She wondered if a bomb had been dropped on America during the hurricane. These thoughts caused fear to rise up from her guts and put the taste of bile in her mouth.
She took a cigarette out of the backpack and lit it and sat smoking and let the boat continue to drift along awhile with the floodwaters. She realized that if she sat around thinking much longer severe panic would overtake her. So she lifted the oars and began a steady rowing through town, up one historic street and down another. She tried hard not to dwell on the disasters that swarmed around her, as the storm had left nothing untouched.
Water has a strange unmusical silence of its own, she noticed, and she wanted to fight against that sound. She broke the silence with her own voice calling out “HELLO, ANYONE OUT HERE? ANY ONE NEED HELP? ... HELLO … HELL …” No answer. Not even a dog bark, which she would have welcomed. She left the historic section of town and went on to the modern subdivisions. Street signs were leaning and tilted and barely surfaced above the height of the water where she guided the awkward jon boat. In the subdivisions she called out. Called again and again. Nothing.
She finished going through this side of town. Jerry would not have liked where she was heading now. She would go to the other side and search. As she rowed and paddled she thought about the people on this side of the tracks, the ones who would have made it into the shelter downstairs at the Old P.O. Museum; the ones who would have been welcomed, the ones who went to the country club and were friends with Jerry. Jerry was a sharp attorney.
As she rowed she wondered about him. How could he have been brainwashed by that insane fellow on the radio and then on TV and the Internet? She had not adjusted well at first to the difference between Mountain culture and Southern culture. But what was most disturbing to her was that these fellows and most of their wives were sharp with money and held high standing positions. Most were college educated with Masters and Doctorate degrees. They were choosing to believe in a cultish doctrine that was tied with race and religion and money. They were blindsided by false faith. These fellows would go golfing up in Waynesville and hold their meetings in lodges over drinks. They made extended trips to the Midwest and California rallying support. Their hero was that belligerent man on the radio and YouTube. She didn’t even know what to call the groups back then or what they called themselves. She made it her purpose not to know. Many of the other wives of these men also preferred to stay silent even if amongst themselves over bridge they quietly voiced their concerns.
Only when the FBI questioned her after Jerry’s death had she learned the name of his group and tried hard to immediately forget it. Jane would not ever adjust her thinking to their doctrines because it went against common sense and felt un-American, indecent, and against her own belief in the goodness of God. She was terrified now, because the main belief of Jerry’s group was that the world would face catastrophe. According to them only those with light skin and a lot of money and a strict belief system would survive. Survival of the richest?
Jane continued to row the boat toward the forbidden part of town. Forbidden by Jerry. Even though he had been dead for fifteen years some of his ways had tried to control her even afterwards. She always found herself making mental adjustments in her newfound freedom of more than a decade. Down here in this part of North Carolina, Sundays were mostly segregated except for a few that were non-denominational. There were plenty of white churches and black churches, Hispanic churches and Hmong churches. Jerry had told her it was because everyone down here likes to worship with his or her own kind and it ought to stay that way, one of the reasons he wanted to live in the South. She had mentioned that these church folk weren’t getting good practice for Heaven by being this way since people won’t have skin in Heaven. They’ll have souls and souls are made of light. Jerry told her that was the stupidest thing he’d ever heard and when she tried to go to the only mixed congregation non-denominational church in town, he threw her around the yard that Sunday afternoon when she returned. Now as she rowed the boat towards the other edge of town she passed that church. And tried hard not to remember that Sunday.
Jerry was not even from the South. He was from Massachusetts. He had a Kennedy accent and anti-Kennedy politics. He appeared to be sharp and smart and he was a charming man when she met him while working at a bakery in Asheville. He was a new attorney just in town for a conference and he flirted with her across the counter as she handed him cream filled doughnuts. She was a college student not residing on campus. Jerry drove up to Asheville from Raleigh often to see her. She graduated and they got engaged.
Jane rowed the boat but paused and looked down at her hands and fingers, which now held no rings upon them. No bands of matrimony now. She had thrown the diamond and the wedding band into his casket.
During the engagement she noticed some odd things. She felt he was rude and downright ugly sometimes to his own mother on the phone but Jane ignored that. She also ignored his ability to go from a nice guy to a raging belligerent one in less than a second. She thought it was the stress of relocating from Raleigh to Charlotte. They were married in May. In that following year he beat her three times. Once because she misplaced his silver cuff links, or at least he accused her of it. Once he beat her for not picking up his medication from the drugstore. The third time he beat her because he couldn’t find his gold lighter.
She fought back each time to stay alive. They grieved and made up. He courted her again with flowers and passionate lovemaking. He spoiled her with trips to the Keys and to Paris and with diamonds to prove that he loved her. Jerry didn’t hurt her anymore for the rest of that year. She became pregnant the following spring and she was happy.
Her sister was engaged to be married in June that year to an African-American man. The wedding would take place under an enormous tent near their grandmother’s rose gardens in Asheville. Jerry refused to attend the wedding. Jane got ready to go anyway. Her hair and make-up were perfect and she wore a pale lilac dress and strappy silver heels. She took her matching purse, and her car keys, and went to the car. But as she was getting in, Jerry was suddenly behind her, and he yanked her backwards by the hair and slammed her into the ground.
She tried to get through the open car door anyway when he kicked her down into the white sharp gravel of their curved drive.
Jane’s oars were still. She now faced the side of town where Jerry had refused to go. The side of town she slipped off to anyways, across the railroad tracks, to the tin roof vegetable stand where she bought a few certain fruits, which she couldn’t grow in her huge gardens since she had no orchards of peaches, apples, or oranges.
Where are you going now?
She remembered his voice shouting and his spit flying at her in his rage. She looked down at her soggy jeans and dirty waders but saw a past remembrance: of her pantyhose torn and knees bleeding, and blood flowed from the palms of her hands where she tried to break the fall. No, don’t see this now, she whispered. She closed her eyes tight and said aloud, “he’s not alive; he can’t hurt me now.”
She opened her eyes and stared down at her legs still covered in saturated denim from the dive into the basement of the museum and the awkward waders that came up her thighs. She reached for and clenched the oars of the boat so tight that her elbows almost locked stiff, and she struggled to fight the tension in her arms.
She shivered from dampness. Breathe. It’s only a flood. You’ve lived through worse. Breathe.
Why would his shouting come to her now, why these memories now? She thought they had finally vanished after his death but here at the crossroads of a flooded town many strange things surfaced. She tried so hard to think about other things and she wondered what the earth looked like now from space, maybe a bluish marble with nothing green left, just tinges of grey and brown. All was washed with mud and sludge and being purged and demons were churning to the surface. Or maybe it appeared to be a snow globe, held in the hands of some deity who was, after all, ill with humanity’s lack of love and wanted to shake things up. God wouldn’t do this, she whispered.
Jane rowed the boat toward the railroad tracks or what might be railroad tracks. There was the railroad sign in this deep water standing barely visible above the surface.
The memory was on her now as deep and as wide as the floodwaters around her. She paddled the old aluminum boat slowly toward the sign and kept on remembering.
God in Heaven Send me strength. Let me live. She remembered running, calling out desperately for help and the dress tearing as he reached her and slung her around. The blood hot and sticky, from her head pouring down her face. His hands clenched in hard fists felt like rocks plunged into her back and ribs as she ran away. She remembered something inside her ripping loose. Then he pinned her down to the ground and with an unmerciful grasp he twisted her head, her neck muscles began ripping in slow motion, while he shouted and screamed repeatedly at her, “You’re nothing but hillbilly-nigger- lovin’-white-trash!”
Jane now lifted the oars and laid them across her lap. She reached out and grabbed the railroad sign with her right hand to hold steady the boat and make it stop. Unable to guide the boat, her left hand reached up to check her own neck. It doesn’t hurt now. I am okay. It’s just a memory. And she remembered she had prayed aloud. Please, Jesus, send me angels. Please Jesus be my strength.
Then with an incredible power she knew came from somewhere deep in her heart, and at the point when her neck was about to snap she struggled hard and fast and loosened a leg free and back kicked, unable to aim but hoping she could kick him off of her. He took the kick square on in the jaw and fell backwards but before she could crawl away he was on her again in seconds, pummeling the back of her head and shoulders and back with his fists.
Angels in blue surrounded him. From the ground she could see prisms of light glowing from their silver badges and from the ground she could hear everything. Their black shoes crunching the white gravel. His nasal voice softened as he turned into Mr. Nice Guy.
But they read him his rights and took him away to jail. They took Jane to the emergency room. She lost the baby and knew she would be a fool to ever get pregnant again with this man. His family came down from up North and bailed him out of jail and blamed Jane for driving their son crazy. Jerry bought Jane the small but beautiful farm situated on rolling acres of pastureland out in Hammery, far away from their mansion in Charlotte. The mansion he maintained for his own entertainment purposes to keep up appearances in this voting district. But the farm was his bribe in exchange for her dropping charges and signing papers that cleared his name. He had beaten the child out of her and never said he was sorry. He had to keep practicing law and that wouldn’t be possible without erasing this kind of record. He had friends and judges and more friends who could make anything work their way. She could hear his harsh voice here at the railroad crossing—Where you going now?
Now? Now she thought to herself it’s just water, maybe toxic water but surely this is only a flood. Just breathe. Breathe. Pray. Sing. Her grandmother once told her to chase evil away with singing. What to sing? Old hymns, she had said. I can’t sing Jane told her. Sing anyways the matriarch had charged her. What to sing now to chase the voice of Jerry away from inside her head?
Jane rowed and sang off key and off kilter.
When peace like a river attendeth my wayWhen sorrows like sea billows rollWhatever my lot that has taught me to sayIt is well, it is well with my soul.
At the crossroads of this flooded world she realized surely some of those not welcomed into the underground shelter may have survived. She thought maybe she couldn’t be the only one. She let go of her grasp on the railroad crossing sign and kept singing, voice shaky at first as she dipped the paddle faster and harder travelling through what had once been a forbidden by Jerry side of town.
Up ahead she thought she saw a movement. Something in the water. She called out, “Hello… Hello… can anybody hear me?” When she got closer to the flashing thing she saw floating she realized it was the tin roof of the vegetable stand. She found the jon boat awkward to turn directions, but she managed to maneuver it around the tin roof. She kept calling out. No one replied. Not a sound. Same as in the historic districts. Imploded houses, rubble, cars flipped over. Toys, a basket, and household items churned up and floating in swirling grey matter where nothing alive existed: no snakes or fish or frogs or water bugs. She rowed up and down the streets calling. Not even a dog bark or song of birds not even the pesky sound of mosquitos. Nothing. She turned and then rowed back west then south, towards home, out of Hammery.
She took up singing her hymn again, the first verse over and over, and the chorus, because she couldn’t remember any of the other verses.
It is well…
With my soul…
About a mile out of town while surveying all of the destruction she spotted the same basket she had seen earlier floating on the water in front of the museum, and then down by what used to be the vegetable stand across the flooded railroad tracks. This time she knew she heard crying. She rowed with faster rhythm that matched the quickening of her heart. She slowed the boat, approaching the basket and secured her oars. The base of the basket was tied to a life jacket with shoestrings. The life jacket was now deflated but the basket managed to float.
She lifted the basket into the boat and pulled back a small damp blanket. The infant was dehydrated and reeked of stench from its heavy diaper. The baby’s pitiful cries sounded more like the meowing of a starving kitten only now more high pitched. Jane opened a bottle of water from her backpack, dipped her finger in, then gave the baby her finger to suck. She took off the bandana she had around her head and washed the shivering infant clean tossing the loaded diaper into the water. She found a dry scarf in her pack and wrapped the baby girl and held her close. “Sweet baby, poor thing, hold on, now, you’ll be alright.” She continued to give the baby water from her fingers dipped in clean water from the bottle. She repeated this action over and over and then realizing how hungry the little one was, she placed her gently down into the basket and picked up the oars.
She was in a hurry now. Most of the trees were leaning into the road and some were blocking it, shredded and splintered. Her arms were strengthened by adrenaline searing through her veins to get the baby home and give it nourishment from warm Nanny goat milk. She sang faster and rowed harder away from the tree lines. The sounds of the oars pulling the thick water and her song’s words blending in urgent tempo until she almost came out of the boat and screamed when she heard a child’s frantic voice crying out, “Help!”
Jane stood up in the boat and turned to scan the tree line she’d avoided because of the massive tangles of electrical wires in the water near them. The wires held no current but they were a mess to try to paddle the oars through.
There in a massive oak, a branch was moving up and down and its turning leaves swayed and side to side. She could see no people this far away. Maybe she was imagining the callings of people.
“Hey lady! Hey you! Lady in the boat! Over here! Help us! Come this way!”
Jane called back, “Hold on! I’m coming!”
She sat down and turned the jon boat back towards the tree line and rowed hard.
She struggled through the tangled wires, and when she was under the oak she then looked up. There high up in the branches of a split apart oak she could see two or three people. Below the tree was a deflated orange rescue boat that had apparently been shredded and popped after getting tangled in a splintered trunk of a nearby fallen tree.
“Come on down!” she hollered up. A small boy was the first to let go of his grasp and plop down in the water causing her boat to rock on the small wave the splash created. The boy swam to her boat and climbed over the edge and faced her. He had on no shirt and was scraped and cut about the chest. His face was a plaster of freckles but underneath that she saw the cracked lips and the pale whiteness around his mouth. She gave him water from the bottle she had opened earlier for the baby. He drank eagerly and chugged the whole bottle until it was empty.
Another kid hit the water from the tree above: a skinny teenage girl with long stringy hair swam to the boat and climbed in. The girl did not speak but sat behind the little boy and pulled him up on her lap. “She’s my sister,” said the boy to Jane. “She’s done quit talking.”
Jane took another water bottle out of her pack and handed it to the girl.
“What’s your name?”
“Her name is Suzanne,” the boy answered.
“My name is Jane.” She held her hand out to shake Suzanne’s but the little boy took it, and shook it hard. “My name is Eddie. I’m six and Suzanne’s thirteen going on fourteen.”
“Glad to see you Eddie and Suzanne. Any more people up in that tree?”
“One old woman but she’s dead now. And an old man. Don’t know if he will come down,” Eddie shouted up to the old man, “Old man? You coming down?”
“I’m ‘bout done for.” The old man’s voice was raspy and weak. “Just go on.”
Jane called up, “No, we can wait. Got some food at my place. You hungry?”
There was silence but for the water lapping the boat. Then they heard him.
“I reckon I might be.”
The old man slowly shimmied down the tree. Moving carefully he grasped the trunk with his arms instead of his hands. He kept stopping to look up into the higher branches. He whispered words upwards towards those branches but Jane could not hear what the words were. He was shirtless and as he came closer down the tree Jane noticed his hands were bandaged. His back was deeply scarred.
“Can’t swim,” he called out when he got to the lowest part of the tree that was above water.
“Hold on. I’ll come and get you.” She noticed how tall he was and she turned to Suzanne and asked, “Can you swim?”
Jane rowed the boat as close as possible to the tree then handed the baby in the basket to Eddie and said, “Don’t let go of this baby.”
She pulled up a lifejacket from her supply bin. She told Suzanne to jump in with her and help her, so the two of them jumped out of the boat and swam over to the old man, put the life jacket on him, and half swam and half dragged him into the boat which almost flipped over with Eddie screaming and clinging to the baby in the basket with one arm and clinging to the side of the boat with the other.
Once in the boat with everyone settled she brought another bottle of water and handed it to him. But his hands shook and he cried out in pain in his attempt to hold the bottle. Jane wondered if this elderly man might be a hundred years old. Wrinkles a half-inch deep creased his forehead. He was very dark skinned with stark white hair cut close to his head. He had a shocking white beard growing in, matted. His pants were torn and drenched and when she pulled the bandages off his hands she noticed the pale pink palms were cut up and sliced with blood and pus on them. Jane took out her first aid kit and poured peroxide on the man’s hands and he winced in pain.
Eddie chimed in, “Old man pulled us up into the tree with a long skinny wire after our boat popped. That’s how come his hands is cut all to pieces.”
Jane wrapped the man’s hands in gauze and asked him, “How long’ve you been up in that tree?”
“Maybe a few days. Maybe a week. Don’t know for sure.”
“Now here,” she opened the water bottle for him. “Drink this slow.”
After he had swallowed a few sips Jane asked him, “What is your name?”
The old man cleared his throat and said roughly, “Paul.”
“Is the woman in the tree your wife?”
Paul’s eyes stared steady into hers. He nodded. Then his glance drifted away.
Eddie piped in, “She died yesterday. He said she had the sugar diabetes and needed her shots. She done went comatose. Wasn’t nothing he could do. He tied her to a branch high up. I helped him. Wrapped her in good with wires so she don’t fall out.”
“What is her name?” Jane reached out and placed her hand on Paul’s arm. His glance drifted back to hers.
“Okay Paul, we will come back and bring Linda down. When this water recedes. Maybe tomorrow. Or the next day. Give her a funeral.”
“She’s done gone on to Heaven,” Paul replied. “Maybe I ought to go on soon, too, and be with her.”
He looked like he wanted to jump out of the boat. Jane didn’t remove her hand from his arm.
“Maybe we need you to stay… I think we are about all that are left. I’ve looked all over town for hours. Please, just come on with us now.”
Paul looked at Eddie and Suzanne. The baby began its weak pleading again.
“Where’d that baby come from?”
“A basket I saw floating by. Somebody thought to send her out to be rescued.”
Paul looked at the baby, studying it for a while and then at Jane and he nodded.
To the kids she said, “Hold on to that baby. I have to row.”
That night in the loft of her barn, after she fed her new family some cheese and crackers and goat’s milk and made beds for everyone in the hay alongside the goats, and after Suzanne and Eddie lay cuddled together snoring and the baby slept hard from finally having a belly full of goat’s milk and the old man had fallen asleep weeping, Jane sat at the edge of the loft. Exhaustion was on her body but her mind was restless. She knew that tomorrow they could go back into town in the jon boat, probably just her and Eddie, and start searching for more food and supplies.
She now stared hard at opposite wall. The flag barely visible in the dark, hung there heavy. She found the flashlight and went back down the loft ladder to the boat and rowed over to the high and wide entrance of the barn. The water had receded only about a foot lower than the level it had been earlier that day. She aimed the flashlight’s beam high up above her to the flag. She jumped out of the boat and half swam and sloshed to find the highest ladder, the one that she had used before to get down the jon boat. She slid the ladder upwards to extend above the entrance. She climbed up and took her knife out and sliced away at the old rotten loops that held on to the flag. It came down slow and dusty as she tried to aim it to land in the jon boat. She stayed up most of the night working by lantern light, cutting the flag into little rectangles, to make diapers for the baby girl whom she named Winona, and who needed her to be a mama now.