Of Gods and Floods
In Sunday school we used to hear about Noah and his ark, and the animals going two-by-two. Our teacher always used to say the most important part of it was that the Flood served its purpose, and God said he wouldn’t send one never again.
We always laughed about that, because the rules were a little different when you lived in between two of the biggest rivers in the country. We got floods about near every year. Some were big and some weren’t even worth watching over the levees, but they happened nonetheless.
“Ritchie,” Granddaddy would say to me every year, “let this be a lesson to you. Who created the world?”
“God did, Granddaddy.”
“And who floods it?”
“Well, my teacher said it ain’t nobody’s fault, just the snow melting up in Minnesota with no other place to go.”
“Your teacher’s an idjit.” He paused, sucked on his teeth. “Mother Nature floods us in Cairo. And you know why?”
Of course I knew why, but I didn’t want to ruin his story. “No, why?”
“Cuz no matter if’n it be a woman on Earth or a woman in Heaven, she gonna do what she can to make her man look a fool!” He’d laugh until he wheezed, and then Aunt Ella would come out and shoo us all off the porch till he calmed down.
Farming isn’t the easiest way to make a living. You do everything in your power to protect those crops — fancy fertilizers and pesticides, expensive equipment to quickly plant and harvest under the best conditions — but then there’s either too much rain or too little, scorching heat or unexpected frosts.
Grandma always said this is the best time in all of history to be farmers. “We’re gods, Sharon. We use meteorology to forecast the weather and adjust accordingly. We have levees to hold back the flood waters. My parents and grandparents didn’t have any of that. Even with such good soil, they’d have more bad years than good.”
“We still have bad years,” said my older sister Rayanne. At seventeen and about ready to head off to Mizzou, she knew everything about everything.
“They’re not as bad as they used to be,” said Grandma. “Why, back in my day….”
Rayanne and I looked at each other. She rolled her eyes and I tried to hold in a giggle. Grandma always ended up at this point, telling us stories we’d heard a hundred times already.
Rayanne had pointed this out once, when she was in a particularly pain-in-the-you-know-what mood.
“And I’m going to keep telling you them,” Grandma had spat back. “This land makes us who we are. If you don’t have your history, you don’t have anything.”
Cairo is a peculiar little town. It used to be real important, on account of its location on the Mississippi and Ohio, and it got real rich ferrying people and their stuff across the rivers. But then they built the bridges and nobody had a reason to stop in town. The jobs went too, with just a bunch of people left who didn’t much care for each other’s skin color. The Civil Rights movement was pretty violent here, with lots of shootings and riots and violence, and a lot of the white business owners just said screw it and left town.
So this once-big town is now left with falling down houses, and no hospital, and not really any businesses. Heck, there ain’t even a McDonald’s here. Just a lot of poor people with nothing to do.
Me and my brother Eddie and our friends usually pass our time playing ball. Well, I do at least. There’s a court not too far from our house, and everybody from the neighborhood chills there. I like to practice my jump shot, pretend maybe I’m gonna be in the NBA someday.
Eddie overheard me telling a friend that one day.
“And how exactly you planning on getting into the NBA?” he asked as he leaned against the chain link fence next to the court, a cigarette in his hand. “You ain’t even on the school team. Not that any agents are gonna be hanging around here looking for players.”
“I’ll practice real hard.” I paused, then swooshed the ball through the netless hoop. “And maybe they’ll come through town some day while I’m playing and they’ll like me so much they’ll put me on their team.”
Eddie opened his mouth, then shut it and walked away with his friends, their cigarettes clasped between their fingers.
Later that night, as I was sitting in the kitchen working on my math homework, a firetruck zoomed by our house. But I heard the sirens so often anymore I didn’t even look up.
I was in the barn, sweeping out the clods of dried mud that’d caked off the tractors, when Rayanne came waltzing in.
“Shouldn’t you be helping with this?” I asked her. She was supposed to be helping with a lot, but she said she had a bad case of senioritis that kept her from doing chores. Symptoms included talking on the phone to her friends, looking at pictures of Mizzou online, and sneaking off to Memphis or St. Louis.
She shrugged. “There’s no point to it.”
“To what? Sweeping?” I was confused. “Grandma told us to do it. You wanna take it up with her?”
“Grandma doesn’t know everything.”
“She knows everything about farming.”
“Then she should know how pointless doing chores is if they’re just going to make us leave anyways.”
I stopped, leaned on the broom handle. “Who’s making us leave?” I couldn’t imagine anyone getting Grandma off the farm, not without a fight.
“The river gods.”
Rayanne grinned at me. “The Corps is talking about blowing up the levee. Looks like we might not be stuck on this farm forever.”
“Les Clemson says the levee’s about to go,” said Eddie at dinner. “A sand boil popped up yesterday.”
“Les Clemson don’t know his ass from a hole in the ground,” said Granddaddy. “Don’t you be listening none to that fool.”
Usually Aunt Ella got on his case when he cussed around me and Eddie, but tonight she just said, “The Corps been awful active around town.”
“That levee’ll hold just fine. Ain’t never been a problem with it, and there ain’t gonna be.” Granddaddy grinned at me. “Besides, them Corps boys got themselves a secret weapon.”
“What do you know about what the Corps’ doing?” asked Aunt Ella.
Like a lot of people in town, Granddaddy didn’t work. He told anyone who’d listen that raising me and Eddie was a fulltime job, although to be fair Aunt Ella did most of the work, like laundry and cooking and yelling at us all. And Aunt Ella had a real job too, as a substitute teacher at the combined junior and senior high school.
Because Granddaddy didn’t have a job to go to, and because me and my brother were at school most of the time, or at least smart enough to not be home when we were skipping, he spent a lot of time shooting the breeze with the other old out-of-work people in town. They’d either gather on someone’s porch, or maybe at one of the few restaurants still in business. Most nights at dinner he’d pass on what he’d heard during the day. And most of the time, his news was spot on.
“They popped into the diner today, needing a break. Though I ain’t sure what work they be needing a break from, what with them levees already built.” With record flooding, the town had been full of people from the Army Corps of Engineers. They kept up with all the big rivers in the country — the Mississippi, the Ohio, and the Missouri — making sure nobody got flooded too bad and that everyone had enough water for barges to get through. And they also got yelled at whenever anything went wrong. Shooting the messenger is what my teacher called it.
“Levees ain’t gonna be much use when the water goes over ‘em,” said Eddie as he spooned mashed potatoes onto his plate.
“Is that gonna happen?” I asked. “I know the water’s high, but can it really go over them?”
“We’re so low, and the ground here is so crappy, that the problem’s the water bubbling up from the ground.”
I stared at Eddie, not sure if he was pulling my leg or not.
Aunt Ella looked at me, then quickly said, “They ain’t gonna let that happen. We’ll be fine.”
“They don’t care none about us,” said Eddie. “Bet this flood’ll wipe us clear off the map.”
“I said, we’ll be fine.”
“What’re they gonna do against water that’s coming from over and under? Not a dang thing.”
“Eddie, I said — ”
Granddaddy banged his spoon against his glass, cutting the argument short. His eyes twinkled. “They got theirselves a secret weapon. Ella’s right; we’s gonna be just fine.”
“What can they possibly do to make that much water go away?” I asked.
Granddaddy’s smile widened. “They’s gonna blow up the levee cross the river.”
Grandma banged around the kitchen that night, throwing the dishes onto the table so hard I was surprised they didn’t break.
“I can’t believe they think blowing a hole in our levee is a good idea!”
“Now, Mom,” said Uncle Hank, who’d stopped by for dinner, “you know there’s a clause in your deed saying they have the right to do whatever they need to manage the river.”
“There’s a difference between having a right, and doing the right thing.” She slammed her glass down, sloshing milk onto the table. “I have the right to shoot someone who trespasses on my property, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.”
“It’s a lot easier to rebuild farms than it is to rebuild a town.”
“Have you seen that town lately?”
Uncle Hank shook his head.
“No one sees that town. It’s deserted and falling apart, and no one would miss it if it were gone. But this land….” She banged her fist on the table for emphasis. “They’re talking about 150,000 acres of prime farmland, going to be destroyed. Land that’s been in families for over a hundred years.”
I thought of the Nile, of the original Egyptian cities we’d named our own Mississippi towns after: Cairo, Memphis, tiny Thebes just upstream. “Isn’t flooding good? I thought it was natural fertilizer.”
“It used to be,” said Uncle Hank, “back before we had so many chemicals. Now when towns flood, the water gets into the sewer systems and mixes with sewage. The water’s contaminated and makes everyone and everything that comes into contact with it sick.”
“Not to mention, the force of the water coming through the hole in the levee is going to knock down everything in its path. Our house, the barns, sheds, bushes….” Grandma looked down at her hands, her voice suddenly tired and old. “Everything our family’s worked so hard for will be gone.”
“We’ll move what we can.” Rayanne stood up, went over, and wrapped her arms around Grandma. “And then we’ll rebuild and make this place even better than before.”
Grandma didn’t say anything, just squeezed Rayanne’s hand.
Me and Eddie wanted to stay and watch them blow up the levee, but Aunt Ella wasn’t having none of it.
“There’s a mandatory evacuation order in place, so that’s what you boys is gonna do.” She glared at us from the doorway of our bedroom. “Pack up everything you’ll need for a couple weeks, cuz we’re staying with your daddy in St. Louis and we ain’t coming back here till they say we can.”
After she left Eddie got up from his bed, stuffed all his clothes into a battered suitcase, then started pulling his posters off the walls.
“You really think the water’s gonna get into the house?” I asked as I carefully placed my clothes into my own suitcase.
Eddie paused, his face turned towards his hands and not me. “I ain’t coming back, Richie.”
“But the house’ll be here. Aunt Ella said it would be.”
He straightened, still not looking at me. “It don’t matter if the house is here or not. I ain’t coming back.”
I didn’t say anything.
After a moment, he turned around and faced me. “There ain’t nothing here in this town anymore, Richie. For me, for you, for anybody. This is my chance to be somebody. And I don’t know that I’ll get another one.”
I nodded but I didn’t want to. Me and Eddie had always stuck together. I didn’t know what I’d do without him.
“Don’t tell no one.” He came over, gave me a quick hug, and then left the room.
“I want to watch them blow up the levee,” I told Uncle Hank. His farm wouldn’t be affected, so Rayanne, Grandma, and I were staying with him. He wasn’t married, no kids, so he had plenty of space for us all.
“I do too,” said Rayanne. She’d been acting weird since we moved out of our farmhouse. Usually she was in town, or off with friends somewhere, but for the past week she’d been sticking close to me and Grandma.
“You want to come too, Mom?”
“No, thanks,” said Grandma. She was sitting at his computer, scrolling through spreadsheets. As soon as we’d arrived she’d strong-armed most of the farm operations away from him. She claimed she needed to stay busy. Uncle Hank joked he was glad for the vacation, until she smacked him with a wooden spoon and declared he might be forty years old but she’d still beat any attitude out of him. “I want to figure out why you’re wasting so much money on your pesticides.”
Uncle Hank took us to a spot where some of our neighbors planned to watch. There was a bright series of flashes in the night, accompanied by a boom. It was too dark to see but I imagined the water rushing in through the hole.
Rushing across the fields.
Across our driveway.
Into our kitchen.
Beside me in the dark, Rayanne took my hand, then pulled me into a big bear hug.
“We’ll rebuild,” she whispered into my ear.
When? I wanted to ask. She’d be gone in just a few months, to a college half a state away. She’d forget about the farm, about me and Grandma.
I pulled away from her and walked over to where Uncle Hank was talking to the man who owned the farm next to him. “I’ve seen enough,” I told him. I got in his truck and didn’t say another word.
Aunt Ella decided we could come back a week after they blew the levee, after we seen the Corps’ plan worked. Granddaddy was sitting on porch when we pulled up. He’d refused to go with us, making such a fuss that Aunt Ella had said to hell with him and just driven away.
“You lost one, Ella,” he said as we got out of the car. “Shoulda stayed here. I’d a kept track of ’em just fine.”
“Eddie decided to stay with his daddy,” said Aunt Ella. She went into the house, letting the screen door slam behind her. She hadn’t said much on the drive home, and I guess she didn’t want to talk none now either.
I moved to follow her, to take my suitcase upstairs and unpack — it was my room now, just mine, and I could put my stuff wherever I wanted — but Granddaddy stopped me.
I looked down at him, hunched over on his old rocking chair. I’d seen him just about every day since the time I was born, but after being away for just a week he looked different. Older. Worn out. Frail, even.
He kept on staring out into the street, at the empty shell of a house across from us. Not saying anything. After a few moments I patted his hand and went inside to unpack.
Summer passed in a blur of farmwork; Uncle Hank’s farm, perched on high enough ground, still functioned, and Grandma said we needed to earn our keep. I didn’t mind staying busy because it kept me from thinking about our house probably not being there anymore, or about Rayanne leaving for school in the fall. Rayanne for her part kept close to home.
“Why aren’t you spending time with your friends?” Uncle Hank asked her one sticky July evening as we all sat out on his screened-in porch, eating popcorn and listening to the locusts hum.
“They’re all going to Mizzou.” Her chin perched on her knees, arms wrapped around her legs. Usually I sat like that and she sprawled all over, mostly probably to make Grandma mad she wasn’t sitting like a lady. “I’ll have plenty of time to see them this fall while you guys are stuck cleaning up the mess the flood left.”
Grandma and Hank exchanged a look.
“What?” I asked, heart beating fast. “Is the house gone?”
“No, it’s still there,” said Uncle Hank. “Your great-grandpa built it solid.”
“Sharon,” said Grandma slowly, “the house is still there, but nothing else is. The barns are gone. It’s going to take years for that land to recover enough to plant anything. They’re offering a buy-out, and I’ve decided to take them up on it.”
“That’s our home! Where will we live?”
“Your grandma’s pretty much taken over operations here, and honestly I’m glad for the help. We thought you could stay here permanently.”
“That makes sense,” said Rayanne, nodding.
“What do you care?” I yelled, jumping up. “You’re leaving. You hated living on the farm.”
“Sometimes it takes losing the stuff you love to appreciate what you have.” She smiled at me, like that made it all better.
“Whatever,” I mumbled as I brushed past her and went inside.
When the water finally receded, Uncle Hank and Grandma went back to the farm to see the damage. They invited me to go with, but I declined. What was the use when there was nothing left, and we weren’t going to rebuild?
School started up, and I threw myself into my schoolwork. Rayanne lasted a semester at Mizzou; at Christmas break she moved back for good and transferred to the community college in Cape Girardeau. She said the commute sucked, but it was worth it to be able to see us every day.
Me, I began to learn the Mizzou fight song.
At first Eddie called every few days to see how we were doing, and then I guess he got busy with his new friends in St. Louis, and I got busy with school and my friends in Cairo, and before I knew it I hadn’t talked to him for a month.
So that made it much harder to call and tell him the news.
“Eddie,” I said when it beeped for me to leave a message, “Granddaddy had a stroke. The doctors say he’ll be okay, but he probably won’t be the same as he was before. Aunt Ella says you should probably come back and see him. Gimme a call as soon as you get this, okay?”
But it wasn’t Eddie who called me back the next day; it was my daddy’s girlfriend.
“Eddie got picked up last night knocking over a gas station,” said the message on the phone. “We ain’t got the money to bail him out, and even if we did he can’t leave the state. We’ll let you know when he gets sentenced.”
I listened to the message over and over, not sure how to break the news to Aunt Ella. Or Granddaddy. I walked into the kitchen, where she was sitting drinking a cup of coffee. She’d been spending most of her time at the hospital up at Cape Girardeau, stopping home for an hour or so to check on me.
“I always wanted to leave here,” she said when I came in, not looking at me. “But your grandmama got sick, so I stayed and took care of her. Your mama went off to St. Louis, met your daddy, and had you and your brother.”
I shrugged. My mama had died so long ago, I barely even thought about her.
“Your brother’s just like her, out there seeing the world.”
“He got picked up knocking over a gas station,” I blurted out.
She sat there real still, and I didn’t know if she’d heard what I said. Just as I was about to repeat it, she spoke. “We might not be the best family, Richie, but we’re what you got. For better or worse, we’re what you got.” She got up and put her cup in the sink. “I’m gonna stay up there with Daddy for awhile. Call me if you need something.”
I followed her out of the falling-down house and stood on the porch as she drove away.
I thought back to last spring, during the flood, when Eddie had watched me play basketball.
I thought of the rainbow God sent Noah, promising never to flood the world again.
I thought of the Corps, trying their best to play god on the river.
I studied the houses around me: the broken glass, plywood over the doors, scorch marks around the windows. I didn’t see any rainbows.
They blew up the wrong levee.
E.D. Martin is a writer with a knack for finding new jobs in new places. Born and raised in Illinois, her past incarnations have included bookstore barista in Indiana, college student in southern France, statistician in North Carolina, economic development analyst in North Dakota, and high school teacher in Iowa. She draws on her experiences to tell the stories of those around her, with a generous heaping of “what if” thrown in.
She currently lives in Illinois where she job hops while attending grad school and working on her novels. Read more of her stories at her website.
“Of Gods and Floods was originally published in Shadow Road Quarterly, Dec 2012. It also appears in E.D.’s short story collection, Us, Together.