VI - Old Moses Comes to Call
MOM HaD PICKED UP THE PHONE WHEN IT RaNG, PaST TEN o'clock at night about a week after our visit to Mr. Sculley's place.
"Tom!" she said, and her voice carried a frantic edge. "J.T. says the dam's burst at Lake Holman! They're callin' everybody together at the courthouse!"
"Oh, Lord!" Dad sprang up from the sofa, where he'd been watching the news on television, and he slid his feet into his shoes. "It'll be a flood for sure! Cory!" he called. "Get your clothes on!"
I knew from his tone that I'd better move quick. I put aside the story I was trying to write about a black dragster with a ghost at the wheel and I fairly jumped into my jeans. When your parents get scared, your heart starts pounding ninety miles a minute. I had heard Dad use the word flood. The last one had been when I was five, and it hadn't done a whole lot of damage except stir up the swamp snakes. I knew, though, from my reading about Zephyr that in 1938 the river had flooded the streets to the depth of four feet, and in 1930 the spring flood had risen almost to the rooftops of some of the houses in Bruton. So my town had a history of being waterlogged, and with all the rain we and the rest of the South had been getting since the beginning of april, there was no telling what might happen this year.
The Tecumseh River fed out of Lake Holman, which lay about forty miles north of us. So, being as it is that all rivers flow to the sea, we were in for it.
I made sure Rebel would be all right in his dog run behind the house, and then my mom, dad, and I jammed into the pickup truck and headed for the courthouse, an old gothic structure that stood at the terminus of Merchants Street. Most everybody's lights were on; the message network was in full operation. It was just drizzling right now, but the water was up to the pickup's wheel rims because of the overloaded drainpipes and some people's basements had already flooded. My friend Johnny Wilson and his folks had had to go live with relatives in Union Town for that very reason.
Cars and pickup trucks were filling up the courthouse's parking lot. Off in the distance, lightning streaked across the heavens and the low clouds lit up. People were being herded into the courthouse's main meeting room, a large chamber with a mural painted on the ceiling that showed angels flying around carrying bales of cotton; it was a holdover from when cotton crop auctions used to be held here, twenty years ago, before the cotton gin and warehouse were moved to floodproof Union Town. We found seats on one of the splintery bleachers, which was fortunate because the way other folks were coming in, there soon wasn't going to be room enough to breathe. Somebody had the good sense to turn on the fans, but the hot air emanating from people's mouths seemed inexhaustible. Mrs. Kattie Yarbrough, one of the biggest chatterboxes in town, squeezed in next to Mom and started jabbering excitedly while her husband, who was also a milkman at Green Meadows, trapped my father. I saw Ben come in with Mr. and Mrs. Sears, but they sat down across the room from us. The Demon, whose hair looked as if it had just been combed with grease, entered trailing her monstrous mother and spindly pop. They found places near us, and I shuddered when the Demon caught my repulsed gaze and grinned at me. Reverend Lovoy came in with his family, Sheriff amory and his wife and daughters entered, the Branlins came in, and so did Mr. Parlowe, Mr. Dollar, Davy Ray and his folks, Miss Blue Glass and Miss Green Glass, and plenty more people I didn't know so well. The place got jammed.
"Quiet, everybody! Quiet!" Mr. Wynn Gillie, the assistant mayor, had stepped up to the podium where the cotton auctioneer used to stand, and behind him at a table sat Mayor Luther Swope and Fire Chief Jack Marchette, who was also the head of Civil Defense. "Quiet!" Mr. Gillie hollered, the veins standing out on his stringy neck. The talking died down, and Mayor Swope stood up to speak. He was tall and slim, about fifty years old, and he had a long-jawed, somber face and gray hair combed back from a widow's peak. He was always puffing on a briar pipe, like a locomotive burning coal up a long, steep haul, and he wore perfectly creased trousers and shirts with his initials on the breast pocket. He had the air of a successful businessman, which he was: he owned both the Stagg Shop for Men and the Zephyr Ice House, which had been in his family for years. His wife, Lana Jean, was sitting with Dr. Curtis Parrish and the doctor's wife, Brightie.
"Guess everybody's heard the bad news by now," Mayor Swope began. He had a mayorly appearance, but he spoke as if his mouth was full of oatmeal mush. "We ain't got a whole lot of time, folks. Chief Marchette tells me the river's already at flood stage. When that water from Lake Holman gets here, we're gonna have us a real problem. Could be the worst flood we've ever had. Which means Bruton'll get swamped first, it bein' closest to the river. Vandy, where are youi" The mayor looked around, and Mr. Vandercamp Senior raised his rickety hand. "Mr. Vandercamp is openin' up the hardware store," Mayor Swope told us. "He's got shovels and sandbags we can use to start buildin' our own dam between Bruton and the river, maybe we can hold the worst of the flood back. Which means everybody's gonna have to work: men, women, and children, too. I've called Robbins air Force Base, and they're sendin' some men to help us. Folks are comin' over from Union Town, too. So everybody who can work oughta get over to Bruton and be ready to move some dirt."
"Hold on just one damn minute, Luther!"
The man who'd spoken stood up. You couldn't miss him. I think a book about a white whale was named after him. Mr. Dick Moultry had a florid, puffed face and wore his hair in a crew cut that resembled a brown pincushion. He had on a tent-sized T-shirt and blue jeans that might've fit my dad, Chief Marchette, and Mayor Swope all at the same time. He lifted a blubbery arm and aimed his finger at the mayor. "What you're tellin' us to do, it seems to me, is to forget about our own homes! Yessir! Forget about our own homes and go to work to save a bunch of niggers!"
This comment was a crack in the common clay. Some hollered that Mr. Moultry was wrong, and some hollered he was right.
"Dick," Mayor Swope said as he pushed his pipe into his mouth, "you know that if the river's going to flood, it always starts in Bruton. That's the lowland. If we can hold it back there, we can-"
"So where are the Bruton peoplei" Mr. Moultry asked, and his big square head ratcheted to right and left. "I don't see no dark faces in here! Where are theyi How come they ain't in here beggin' us for helpi"
"Because they never ask for help." The mayor spouted a plume of blue smoke; the locomotive's engine was starting to stoke. "I guarantee you they're out on the riverbank right now, tryin' to build a dam, but they wouldn't ask for help if the water came up to their roofs. The Lady wouldn't stand for it. But they do need our help, Dick. Just like last time."
"If they had any sense, they'd move out of there!" Mr. Moultry insisted. "Hell, I'm sick and tired of that damn Lady, too! Who does she think she is, a damn queeni"
"Sit down, Dick," Chief Marchette told him. The fire chief was a big-boned man with a chiseled face and piercing blue eyes. "There's no time to argue this thing."
"The hell you say!" Mr. Moultry had decided to be stubborn. His face was getting as red as a fireplug. "Let the Lady come over here to white man's land and ask us for help!" That brought a storm of assenting and dissenting shouts. Mr. Moultry's wife, Feather, stood up beside him and hollered, "Hell, yes!" She had platinum-blond hair and was more anvil than feather. Mr. Moultry bellowed over the noise, "I ain't breakin' my ass for no niggers!"
"But, Dick," Mayor Swope said in a bewildered way, "they're our niggers."
The shouting and hollering went on, some people saying it was the Christian thing to keep Bruton from being flooded and others saying they hoped the flood was a jimdandy so it would wash Bruton away once and for all. My folks kept quiet, as most of the others did; this was a war of the loudmouths.
Suddenly a quiet began to spread. It began from the back of the chamber, where people were clustered around the doorway. Somebody laughed, but the laugh was choked off almost at once. a few people mumbled and muttered. and then a man made his way into the chamber and you'd have thought the Red Sea was parting as folks shrank back to give him room.
The man was smiling. He had a boyish face and light brown hair cresting a high forehead.
"What's all this yelling abouti" he asked. He had a Southern accent, but you could tell he was an educated man. "any problem here, Mayor Swopei"
"Uh... no, Vernon. No problem. Is there, Dicki"
Mr. Moultry looked like he was about to spit and scowl. His wife's face was red as a Christmas beet under her platinum locks. I heard the Branlins giggle, but somebody hushed them up.
"I hope there's no problem," Vernon said, still smiling. "You know how Daddy hates problems."
"Sit down," Mayor Swope told the Moultrys, and they did. Their asses almost busted the bleacher.
"I sense some... disunity here," Vernon said. I felt a giggle about to break from my throat, but my father grasped my wrist and squeezed so hard it went away. Other people shifted uneasily in their seats, especially some of the older widow women. "Mayor Swope, can I come up to the podiumi"
"God save us," my father whispered, and Mom shivered with a silent laugh beating at her ribs.
"Uh... I... suppose so, Vernon. Sure. Come on up." Mayor Swope stepped back, pipe smoke swirling around his head.
Vernon Thaxter stepped up to the podium and faced the assembly. He was very pale under the lights. all of him was pale.
He was stark naked. Not a stitch on him.
His doodad and balls hung out in full view. He was a skinny thing, probably because he walked so much. The soles of his feet must've been as hard as dried leather. Rain glistened on his white flesh and his hair was slick with it. He looked like a picture of a dark Hindu mystic I'd seen in one of my National Geographics, though, of course, he was neither dark nor Hindu. I'd have to say he was no mystic, either. Vernon Thaxter was downright, around-the-bend-and-through-the-woods crazy.
Of course, walking around town in his birthday suit was nothing new for Vernon Thaxter. He did it all the time, once the weather started warming up. You didn't see him very much in late autumn or winter, though. When he first appeared in spring, it was always a start; by July nobody gave him a second glance; by October the falling leaves were more interesting. Then it came spring again, and there was Vernon Thaxter with his private parts on public display.
You might wonder why Sheriff amory didn't stand up right then and there and haul Vernon off to jail for indecent exposure. The reason he did not was because of Moorwood Thaxter, Vernon 's father. Moorwood Thaxter owned the bank. He also owned Green Meadows Dairy and the Zephyr Real Estate Company. Just about every house in Zephyr was mortgaged through Moorwood Thaxter's bank. He owned the land the Lyric theater stood on, and the land where this courthouse had been built. He owned every crack in Merchants Street. He owned the shotgun shacks of Bruton, and his own twenty-eight-room mansion at the height of Temple Street. The fear of Moorwood Thaxter, who was in his seventies and rarely seen, was what kept Sheriff amory in his seat and had kept forty-year-old Vernon naked on the streets of my hometown. It had been this way as long as I remembered.
Mom told me that Vernon used to be all right, but he'd written a book and gone to New York with it and a year later he was back home wandering around nude and nutty.
"Gentlemen and ladies," Vernon began. "and children, too, of course." He reached out his frail arms and grasped the podium's edges. "We have here a very serious situation."
"Momma!" the Demon suddenly squalled. "I can see that feller's dingdo-"
a hand with hairy knuckles clamped over her mouth. I guess the elder Thaxter owned their house, too.
"a very serious situation," Vernon repeated, oblivious to everything but his own voice. "Daddy sent me here with a message. He says he expects the people of this town to show true brotherhood and Christian values in this time of trouble. Mr. Vandercamp Senior, siri"
"Yes, Vernoni" the old man answered.
"Will you kindly keep a record of the names of those able-bodied and good-thinking men who borrow digging utensils from you for the purpose of helping the residents of Brutoni My daddy would appreciate it."
"Be glad to," Mr. Vandercamp Senior said; he was rich, but not rich enough to say no to Moorwood Thaxter.
"Thank you. That way my daddy can have a list at hand when interest rates go up, as they are bound to do in this unsettled age. My daddy has always felt that those men-and women-who aren't loath to work for their neighbors are deserving of extra considerations." He smiled, gazing out at his audience. "anyone else have anything to sayi"
No one did. It's kind of difficult to talk to a naked man about anything but why he won't wear clothes, and nobody would dare bring up such a sensitive subject.
"I think our mission is clear, then," Vernon said. "Good luck to all." He thanked Mayor Swope for letting him speak, and then he stepped down from the podium and walked out of the chamber the way he'd come. The Red Sea parted for him again, and closed at his back.
For a minute or so everybody sat in silence; maybe we were waiting to make sure Vernon Thaxter was out of earshot. Then somebody started laughing and somebody else picked it up, and the Demon started screaming with laughter and jumping up and down, but other people were hollering for the laughers to shut up and the whole place was like a merry glimpse of hell. "Settle down! Settle down, everybody!" Mayor Swope was yelling, and Chief Marchette stood up and bellowed like a foghorn for quiet.
"It's damn blackmail!" Mr. Moultry was on his feet again. "Nothin' but damn blackmail!" a few others agreed with him, but Dad was one of the men who stood up and told Mr. Moultry to shut his mouth and pay attention to the fire chief.
This is how it got sorted out: Chief Marchette said that everybody who wanted to work should get on over to Bruton, where the river flowed against the edge of town on its way to the gargoyle bridge, and he'd have some volunteers load the shovels, pickaxes, and other stuff into a truck at Mr. Vandercamp's hardware store. The power of Moorwood Thaxter was never more evident when Chief Marchette finished his instructions: everybody went to Bruton, even Mr. Moultry.
Bruton's narrow streets were already awash. Chickens flapped in the water, and dogs were swimming. The rain had started falling hard again, slamming on the tin roofs like rough music. Dark people were pulling their belongings out of the wood-frame houses and trying to get to higher ground. The cars and trucks coming over from Zephyr made waves that rolled across submerged yards to crash foam against the foundations. "This," Dad said, "is gonna be a bad one."
On the wooded riverbank, most of the residents of Bruton were already laboring in knee-deep water. a wall of mud was going up, but the river was hungry. We left the pickup near a public basketball court at the Bruton Recreation Center, where a lot of other vehicles were parked, then we slogged toward the river. Fog swirled over the rising water, and flashlight beams crisscrossed in the night. Lightning flashed and thunder boomed. I heard the urgent cries of people to work faster and harder. My mother's hand gripped mine, and held on tightly while Dad went on ahead to join a group of Bruton men. Someone had backed a dump truck full of sand to the riverbank, and a Bruton man pulled Dad up into it and they started filling little burlap bags and tossing them down to other rain-soaked men. "Over here! Over here!" somebody yelled. "It ain't gonna hold!" someone else shouted. Voices crisscrossed and merged like the flashlight beams. They were scared voices. I was scared, too.
There is something about nature out of control that touches a primal terror. We are used to believing that we're the masters of our domain, and that God has given us this earth to rule over. We need this illusion like a good night-light. The truth is more fearsome: we are as frail as young trees in tornadoes, and our beloved homes are one flood away from driftwood. We plant our roots in trembling earth, we live where mountains rose and fell and prehistoric seas burned away in mist. We and the towns we have built are not permanent; the earth itself is a passing train. When you stand in muddy water that is rising toward your waist and you hear people shouting against the darkness and see their figures struggling to hold back the currents that will not be denied, you realize the truth of it: we will not win, but we cannot give up. No one on that disappearing riverbank, there in the pouring rain, thought the Tecumseh was going to be turned aside. It had never been so. Still, the work went on. The truck full of tools came from the hardware store, and Mr. Vandercamp Junior had a clipboard where people signed their names as they accepted a shovel. Walls of mud and sandbags were built up, and the river surged through the barricade like brown soup through a mouthful of weak teeth. The water rose. My belt buckle submerged.
Lightning zigzagged down from the heavens, followed by a crash of thunder so loud you couldn't hear the women scream. "That hit somethin' close!" said Reverend Lovoy, who held a shovel and resembled a mud man. "Lights are goin' out!" a black woman shouted a few seconds later, and indeed the power was failing all over Bruton and Zephyr. I watched the lights flicker and disappear from the windows. Then my hometown lay in darkness, and you couldn't tell sky from water. In the distance I saw what looked like a candle glowing in the window of a house about as far from Bruton as you could get and still be within Zephyr's boundaries. as I watched, the light moved from window to window. I realized I was looking at Mr. Moorwood Thaxter's mansion up at the high point of Temple Street.
I sensed it before I saw it.
a figure stood to my left, watching me. Whoever it was wore a long raincoat, his hands in his pockets. The wind shrilled in off the thunderstorm and moved the wet folds of the coat, and I almost choked on my heart because I remembered the figure in the woods opposite Saxon's Lake.
Then whoever it was started wading past my mother and me toward the laborers. It was a tall figure-a man, I presumed-and he moved with purposeful strength. Two flashlight beams seemed to fence in the air for a few seconds, and the man in the raincoat walked into their conflict. The battling lights did not reveal the man's face, but did reveal something else.
The man wore a drenched and dripping fedora. The band of that hat was secured by a silver disc the size of a half-dollar, and a small decorative feather stuck up from it.
a feather, dark with wet, but a feather with a definite glint of green.
Like the green feather I'd found on the bottom of my sneaker that morning.
My mind raced. Might there have been two green feathers in that hatband, before the wind had plucked one outi
One of the beams, defeated, drew back. The other pranced away. The man walked in darkness.
"Momi" I said. "Momi"
The figure was wading away from us, and had passed no more than eight feet from me. He reached up with a white hand to hold the hat on his head. "Momi" I said again, and she finally heard me over the noise and answered, "What is iti"
"I think... I think..." But I didn't know what I thought. I couldn't tell if that was the person I'd seen across the road, or not.
The figure was moving off through the brown water, step after step.
I pulled my hand free from my mother's, and I went after him.
"Cory!" she said. "Cory, take my hand!"
I heard, but I didn't listen. The water swirled around me. I kept going.
"Cory!" Mom shouted.
I had to see his face.
"Mister!" I called. It was too noisy, what with the rain and the river and the working; he couldn't hear. Even if he did, he wouldn't turn around. I felt the Tecumseh's currents pulling at my shoes. I was sunken waist-deep in cold murk. The man was heading toward the riverbank, where my dad was. Flashlights bobbed and weaved, and a shimmering reflection danced up and struck the man's right hand as he pulled it from his pocket.
Something metallic glinted in it.
Something with a sharp edge.
My heart stuttered.
The man in the green-feathered hat was on his way to the riverbank for an appointment with my father. It was an appointment, perhaps, that he'd been planning ever since Dad dove in after the sinking car. With all this commotion, all this noise, and in all this watery dark, might not the man in the green-feathered hat find a chance to drive that blade into my father's backi I couldn't see my dad; I couldn't make out anyone for sure, just glistening figures straining against the inevitable.
He was stronger against the current than I. He was pulling away from me. I lunged forward, fighting the river, and that was when my feet slipped out from under me and I went down, the muddy water closing over my head. I reached up, trying to grab something to hold on to. There was nothing solid, and I couldn't get my feet planted. My mind screamed that I'd never be able to draw a breath again. I splashed and wallowed, and then somebody had gripped me and was lifting me up as the muddy water oozed from my face and hair.
"I've got you," a man said. "You're all right."
"Cory! What's wrong with you, boyi" That was my mother's voice, rising to new heights of terror. "are you crazyi"
"I believe he stepped in a hole, Rebecca." The man set me down. I was still standing in waist-deep water but at least my feet were touching earth. I wiped clots of mud from my eyes and looked up at Dr. Curtis Parrish, who wore a gray raincoat and a rainhat. The hat had no band, therefore it had no silver disc and no green feather. I turned around, looking for the figure I'd been trying to reach, but he had merged with the other people nearer the river's edge. He and the knife he'd drawn from his pocket.
"Where's Dadi" I said, working up to another fever pitch. "I've gotta find Dad!"
"Whoa, whoa, settle down." Dr. Parrish took hold of my shoulders. In one hand he held a flashlight. "Tom's right over there." He pointed the flashlight's beam toward a group of muddied men. The direction he indicated was not the direction in which the man with the green-feathered hat had gone. But I saw my father over there, working between a black man and Mr. Yarbrough. "See himi"
"Yes sir." again I searched for the mysterious figure. Vanished.
"Cory, don't you run away from me like that!" Mom scolded. "You scared me almost to death!" She took my hand again in a grip of iron.
Dr. Parrish was a heavyset man, about forty-eight or forty-nine years old, with a firm, square jaw and a flattened nose that reminded everyone he'd been a champion boxer when he was a sergeant in the army. With the same hands that had scooped me from the hole at my feet, Dr. Parrish had delivered me from my mother's womb. He had thick dark eyebrows over eyes the color of steel, and beneath his rainhat his dark brown hair was gray on the sides. Dr. Parrish said to Mom, "I heard from Chief Marchette a little while ago that they've opened up the school gym. They're puttin' in oil lamps and bringin' in some cots and blankets. Most of the women and children are goin' over there to stay, since the water's gettin' so high."
"Is that where we ought to go, theni"
"I think it'd be the wise thing. There's no use you and Cory standin' out here in this mess." He pointed with the flashlight again, this time away from the river and toward the swampy basketball court where we'd parked. "They're pickin' up whoever wants to go to the shelter over that way. Probably be another truck along in a few minutes."
"Dad won't know where we are!" I protested, still thinking of the green feather and the knife.
"I'll let him know. Tom would want you both in a safe place, and I'll tell you the truth, Rebecca: the way this is goin', we'll be catchin' catfish in attics before mornin'."
We didn't need much prodding. "Brightie's already over there," Dr. Parrish said. "You ought to go catch the next truck. Here, take this." He gave Mom the flashlight, and we turned away from the swollen Tecumseh and started toward the basketball court. "Keep hold of my hand!" Mom cautioned as the floodwaters swept around us. I looked back, could see only the lights moving in the darkness and glittering off the roiling water. "Watch your step!" Mom said. Farther along the riverbank, past where my father was working, voices rose in a chorus of shouts. I did not know it then, but a frothy wave had just swamped over the highest part of the earthen dam and the water churned and foamed and men suddenly found themselves up to their elbows in trouble as the river burst through. a flashlight's beam caught a glimpse of brown-mottled scales in the muddied foam, and somebody hollered, "Snakes!" In the next second, the men were bowled over by the twisting currents, and Mr. Stellko, the Lyric's manager, aged by ten years when he put his hand out to seize a grip and felt a log-sized, scaly shape moving past him in the turbulence. Mr. Stellko was struck dumb and peed in his pants at the same time, and when he could find his voice to scream, the monstrous reptile was gone, following the flood into the streets of Bruton.
"Help me! Somebody help me!"
We heard the voice of a woman from nearby, and Mom said, "Wait."
Someone carrying an oil lamp was splashing toward us. Rain hissed on the lamp's hot glass and steamed away. "Please help me!" the woman cried.
"What is iti" Mom turned the light onto the panic-stricken face of a young black woman. I didn't know her, but Mom said, "Nila Castilei Is that youi"
"Yes ma'am, it's Nila! Who's thati"
"Rebecca Mackenson. I used to read books to your mother."
This was before I was born, I presumed.
"It's my daddy, Miz Rebecca!" Nila Castile said. "I think his heart's give out!"
"Where is hei"
"at the house! Over there!" She pointed into the darkness, water swirling around her waist. I was about chest-deep by now. "He can't stand up!"
"all right, Nila. Settle down." My mother, a framework of little terrors with skin stretched over it, was amazingly calm when someone else needed calming. This, as I understood it, was part of being a grown-up. When it was truly needed, my mother could reveal something that was sorely lacking in Granddaddy Jaybird: courage. "You lead the way," she said.
Water was rushing into the houses of Bruton. Nila Castile 's house, like so many others, was a narrow gray shotgun shack. She led us in, the river surging around us, and she shouted in the first room, "Gavin! I'm back!"
Her light, and Mom's light, too, fell on an old black man sitting in a chair, the water up around his knees and newspapers and magazines swirling in the current. He was clutching his hand to his wet shirt over his heart, his ebony face seamed with pain and his eyes squeezed shut. Standing next to him, holding his other hand, was a little boy maybe seven or eight years old.
"Grandpap's cryin', Momma," the little boy said.
"I know he is, Gavin. Daddy, I've brought some help." Nila Castile set the lamp down on a tabletop. "Can you hear me, Daddyi"
"Ohhhhh," the old man groaned. "Hurtin' mighty bad this time."
"We're gonna help you stand up. Gonna get you out of here."
"No, honey." He shook his head. "Old legs... gone."
"What're we gonna doi" Nila looked at my mother, and I saw the bright tears in her eyes.
The river was shoving its way in. Thunder spoke outside and the lightning flared. If this had been a television show, it would've been time for a commercial.
But real life takes no pauses. "Wheelbarrow," my mother said. "Have you got onei"
Nila said no, but that they'd borrowed a neighbor's wheelbarrow before and she thought it might be up on their back porch. Mom said to me, "You stay here," and she gave me the oil lamp. Now I was going to have to be courageous, whether I liked it or not. Mom and Nila left with the flashlight, and I stood in the flooding front room with the little boy and the old man.
"I'm Gavin Castile," the little boy said.
"I'm Cory Mackenson," I told him.
Hard to be sociable when you're hip-deep in brown water and the flickering light doesn't fill up the room.
"This here's my grandpap, Mr. Booker Thornberry," Gavin went on, his hand locked with the old man's. "He ain't feelin' good."
"How come you didn't get out when everybody else didi"
"Because," Mr. Thornberry said, rousing himself, "this is my home, boy. My home. I ain't scared of no damned river."
"Everybody else is," I said. Everybody with sense, is what I meant.
"Then everybody else can go on and run." Mr. Thornberry, whom I was beginning to realize shared a stubborn streak with Granddaddy Jaybird, winced as a fresh pain hit him. He blinked slowly, his dark eyes staring at me from a bony face. "My Rubynelle passed on in this house. Right here. I ain't gonna die in no white man's hospital."
"Do you want to diei" I asked him.
He seemed to think about this. "Gonna die in my own home," he answered.
"Water's gettin' deep," I said. "Everybody might get drowned."
The old man scowled. Then he turned his head and looked at the small black hand he was clutching.
"My grandpap took me to the movies!" Gavin said, attached to the thin dark arm as the water rose toward his throat. "We seen a Looney Tune!"
"Bugs Bunny," the old man said. "We seen ol' Bugs Bunny and that stutterin' fella looks like a pig. Didn't we, boyi"
"Yes sir!" Gavin answered, and he grinned. "We gone go see another one real soon, ain't we, Grandpapi"
Mr. Thornberry didn't answer. Gavin didn't let go.
I understood then what courage is all about. It is loving someone else more than you love yourself.
My mother and Nila Castile returned, lugging a wheelbarrow. "Gonna put you in this, Daddy," Nila told him. "We can push you to where Miz Rebecca says they're pickin' up people in trucks."
Mr. Thornberry took a long, deep breath, held it for a few seconds, and then let it go. "Damn," he whispered. "Damn old heart in a damn old fool." His voice cracked a little bit on that last word.
"Let us help you up," Mom offered.
He nodded. "all right," he said. "It's time to go, ain't iti"
They got him in the wheelbarrow, but real soon Mom and Nila realized that even though Mr. Thornberry was a skinny thing, they were both going to have a struggle pushing him and keeping his head above water. I saw the predicament: out beyond the house on the underwater street, Gavin's head would be submerged. a current might whisk him away like a cornhusk. Who was going to hold him upi
"We'll have to come back for the boys," Mom decided. "Cory, you take the lamp and you and Gavin stand up on that table." The tabletop was awash, but it would keep us above the flood. I did as Mom told me, and Gavin pulled himself up, too. We stood together, me holding the lamp, a small pinewood island beneath our feet. "all right," Mom said. "Cory, don't move from there. If you move, I'll give you a whippin' you'll remember for the rest of your life. Understandi"
"Gavin, we'll be back directly," Nila Castile said. "We've got to get Grandpap to where people can help him. Heari"
"Yes ma'am," Gavin answered.
"You boys mind your mothers." Mr. Thornberry spoke up, his voice raspy with pain. "I'll whip both your butts if you don't."
"Yes sir," we both said. I figured Mr. Thornberry had decided he wanted to live.
Mom and Nila Castile began the labor of pushing Mr. Thornberry in the wheelbarrow against the brown water, each supporting one handle and Mom holding the light. They tilted the wheelbarrow up as high as they could, and Mr. Thornberry lifted his head up, the veins standing out in his scrawny neck. I heard my mother grunt with the effort. But the wheelbarrow was moving, and they pushed it through the water that was swirling around the open doorway and across the flooded porch. at the foot of the two cinderblock steps, the water came up to Mr. Thornberry's neck and splashed into his face. They moved away, the current at their backs helping them push the wheelbarrow. I had never thought of my mother as being physically strong before. I guess you never know what a person can do until that person has to do it.
"Coryi" Gavin said after a minute or so.
"I cain't swim," he said.
He was pressed up against my side. He was starting to shiver now that he didn't have to be so brave for his grandpap. "That's okay," I told him. "You won't have to."
We waited. Surely they'd be back soon. The water was lapping up over our soggy shoes. I asked Gavin if he knew any songs, and he said he knew "On Top of Old Smoky," which he began to sing in a high, quavering yet not unpleasant voice.
His singing-more of a yodel, actually-attracted something that suddenly came paddling through the doorway, and I caught my breath at the noise and swung the light onto it.
It was a brown dog, matted with mud. Its eyes gleamed wildly in the light, its breathing harsh as it swam across the room toward us, through the flotsam of papers and other trash. "Come on, boy!" I said. Whether it was a boy or girl was incidental; the dog looked like it needed a perch. "Come on!" I gave Gavin the lamp, and the dog whimpered and yelped as a slow wave slipped through the door and lifted the animal up and down again. Water smacked the walls.
"Come on, boy!" I leaned down to get the struggling dog. I grasped its front paws. It looked up into my face, its pink tongue hanging out in the dank yellow light, as a born-again Christian might appeal to the Savior.
I was lifting the dog out by its paws, and I felt it shudder.
Something went crunch.
as fast as that.
and then its head and shoulders were coming out of the dark water and suddenly there was no more of the dog beyond the middle of its back, no hindquarters, no tail, no hind legs, nothing but a gaping hole that started spilling a torrent of black blood and steaming guts.
The dog made a little whining sound. That's all. But its paws twitched and its eyes were on me, and the agony I saw in them will last in my mind forever.
I cried out-and what I said I will never know-and dropped the mess that had once been a dog. It splashed in, went under, came back up, and the paws were still trying to paddle. I heard Gavin shout something; wannawaterMarsi it sounded like. and then the water thrashed around the half of a carcass, the entrails streaming behind it like a hideous tail, and I saw the skin of something break the surface.
It was covered with diamond-shaped scales the colors of autumn leaves: pale brown, shimmering purple, deep gold, and tawny russet. all the shades of the river were there, too, from swirls of muddy ocher to moonlight pink. I saw a forest of mussels leeched to its flesh, gray canyons of scars and fishhooks scarlet with rust. I saw a body as thick as an ancient oak twist slowly around in the water, taking its own sweet time. I was transfixed by the spectacle, even as Gavin wailed with terror. I knew what I was looking at, and though my heart pounded and I could hardly draw a breath, I thought it was as beautiful as anything in God's creation.
Then I recalled the jagged fang driven like a blade into the chunk of wood at Mr. Sculley's. Beautiful or not, Old Moses had just torn a dog in half.
He was still hungry. This happened so fast, my mind hardly had time to see it: a pair of jaws opened, fangs glistened, and an old boot was in there impaled on one of them along with a flopping silver fish. The jaws sucked the remaining half of the dog's carcass in with a snarling rush of water and then closed delicately, as one might savor a lemonhead candy at the Lyric theater. I caught a quick glimpse of a narrow, pale green cat's-eye the size of a baseball, shielded with a gelatinous film. Then Gavin fell back off the table into the water, and the lamp he was holding hissed out.
I didn't think about being brave. I didn't think about being scared.
I cain't swim.
That's what I thought about.
I jumped off the table to where Gavin had gone in. The water was heavy with mud, and up to my shoulders, which meant Gavin was nostrils-deep. He was flailing and kicking, and when I grabbed him around the waist he must've thought it was Old Moses because he almost jerked my arms off. I shouted, "Gavin! Stop kickin'!" and I got his face up out of the water. "Humma hobba humma," he was babbling, like a rain-soaked engine trying to fire its plugs.
I heard a noise behind me, in that dark and soggy room. The noise of something rising from the water.
I turned around. Gavin yelped and grabbed hold with both arms around my neck, all but throttling me.
I saw the shape of Old Moses-huge, horrible, and breathtaking-coming up from the water like a living swamp log. Its head was flat and triangular, like a snake's, but I think it was not just a snake because it seemed to have two small arms with spindly claws just below what would have been the neck. I heard what must have been its tail thwacking against a wall so hard the house shook. Its head bumped the ceiling. Gavin's grip was making my face balloon with blood.
I knew without seeing that Old Moses was looking at us, with eyes that could spot a catfish through murky water at midnight. I felt its appraisal of us, like a cold knife blade pressed against my forehead. I hoped we didn't look much like dogs.
Old Moses smelled like the river at noon: swampy, steaming, and pungent with life. To say I respected that awesome beast would be quite an understatement. But right at that moment I wished I was anywhere else on earth, even in school. But I didn't have much time for thinking, because Old Moses's snaky head began to descend toward us like the front end of a steam shovel and I heard the hiss of its jaws opening. I backed up, hollering at Gavin to let go, but he would not. If I'd been him, I wouldn't have let go, either. The head came at us, but just then I backed out of the front room into a narrow corridor-which I certainly didn't know was there-and Old Moses's jaws slammed against the door frame on either side of us. This seemed to make him mad. He drew back and drove forward again, with the same result, except this time the door frame splintered. Gavin was crying, making a whoop whoop whoop sound, and a frothy wave from Old Moses's agitations splashed into my face and over my head. Something jabbed my right shoulder, scaring a ripple up my spine. I reached for it, and found a broom floating in the debris.
Old Moses made a noise like a locomotive about to blow its gaskets. I saw the awful shape of its head coming at the corridor's entrance, and I thought of Gordon Scott's Tarzan, spear in hand, fighting against a giant python. I picked up the broomstick, and when Old Moses hit the doorway again I jammed that broom right down its gaping, dog-swallowing throat.
You know what happens when you touch your finger to the back of your throat, don't youi Well, the same thing happens, evidently, to monsters. Old Moses made a gagging noise as loud as thunder in a barrel. The head drew back and the broom went with it, cornstraw bristles jammed in the gullet. Then, and this is the only way I can describe it, Old Moses puked. I mean it. I heard the rush of liquid and gruesome things flooding from its mouth. Fish, some still flopping and some long dead, went flying all around us along with stinking crayfish, turtle shells, mussels, slimy stones, mud, and bones. The smell was... well, you can imagine it. It was a hundred times worse than when the kid in school throws up his morning oatmeal on the desk in front of you. I dunked my head underwater to get away from it, and of course Gavin had to go, too, whether he liked it or not. Underneath there, I thought that Old Moses ought to be more particular about what he scooped off the Tecumseh's bottom.
Currents thrashed around us. I came up again, and Gavin took a gasping breath and yelled his head off. at that point I started yelling, too. "Help!" I shouted. "Somebody help us!"
a light speared through the front door, over the choppy water, and hit me in the face.
"Cory!" came the sound of judgment. " I told you not to move, didn't Ii"
"Lord God!" my mother said. "What's that smelli"
The water was settling down. I realized Old Moses was no longer between the two mothers and their sons. Dead fish floated in a slimy brown sludge on the surface, but Mom's attention was on me. "I'm gonna tan your hide, Cory Mackenson!" she shouted as she waded in with Nila Castile behind her.
Then they walked right into the floating monster disgorgement, and from the sound she made I don't believe my mother was thinking about whipping me anymore.
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