An illustration of this story, drawn my myself circa 2013. You can probably guess what natural disaster is about to occur to our poor family of protagonists.This is very much a spiritual successor to Barton Hollow, as I started writing it shortly after finishing that story. It was first conceived during the 2013 Juniper Institute for Young Writers and, like To Avis Ladongale, this story is one I've retired. I have a wealth of excellent critiques, but after a few years of hiatus, I feel I have outgrown it. Perhaps it would succeed in a different form, but changing the form would involve shifting the focus of the story--and I wanted to stay focused on the development of the narrator's voice and how her language reflects the colonization of her culture.
Yeah, I'm a linguistics nerd.
Townfolk said that when the water'd come, it'd first swell under the dirt, makin' it look like the ground itself was burstin', boilin', meltin'. An' it did. But me, I didn't see nothin' but the black. Night was the only time I let myself peer o'er the edges of the boat, an' e'erwhere you look at night's just black when the clouds're coverin' the moon an' the stars. Ground, water, sky all jumbled together—“the gods're just flowin' into each other, Cady,” Daddy said. “Don't be scared.”
For the first time in my life, I didn't listen to him.
They said it was the heathens that done it. That meant us. The fancy man up in town with the sun-white coat barely e'en touched by the dust—he was the right one, we was the wrong. “You proclaimed the One your pers'nal Lord and Savior yet?” he'd ax e'ry two months we pass by the center of town. Daddy used to talk back 'bout how it ain't good manners to “accost a family with a spiritual quand'ry” like that out of the blue. “Besides,” he said, “there ain't no room for a second preacher-man 'ere in these parts.” The white coat man would always gave him a little smile after that. “I know you're backwards, Sharp. But just you wait til the floodwater comes. You'll be on your knees. Just you wait.”
I always wondered if he'd got a boat for himself or just trusted that the One'd make sure the water didn't flow his way. I'd hoped his house'd get knocked down, or at least his suit'd get torn by the currents. That'd show him who was boss. Daddy always won fights like that.
I was nine. That don't mean I wasn't right.
Not two days after Crier first sighted the storm rumblin' from the other side of the mountains, Momma told us she was gonna go up north to warn the people up the creek of the comin' water. “I gotta make sure they're safe, is all,” she said.
“Why? Why you gotta go?” asked Shem.
“It's my duty to warn them,” said Momma.
I raised my brow. “But don't they know 'bout the flood already? Their Crier shoulda told them by now, right?”
It was all a quiet for a bit. Momma and Daddy glanced at each other, all knowingly. They must've talked 'bout this before, some past night, late, when I'd gone to bed. Daddy sighed. “Cady-girl... it's hard to explain.”
I didn't get no further explanation than that.
Momma gave Shem and me kisses before lacin' up her boots and settin' out. Daddy stood at the doorway and handed her some bundles of food he'd made up real special. “Keep yourself safe, ol' girl,” he said with a kiss.
“I'll keep us all safe,” Momma'd assured.
“I-If you don't come back—” I started. She placed a firm hand on my shoulder. “I'll come back,” said Momma. “May take me til kingdom come, but I'll come back. Just you wait.”
And, with that, she left.
Daddy, Shem, and I went marketin' one last time to stock up on food and supplies for when the water reached us. The white-coat man was there, as always. “Still bankin' on your gods to save you, Sharp?” he said. His s was stretched out like a hissin' snake.
Daddy laughed. “Least I ain't bankin' on only one's favor, am I?”
The preacher started glarin' at us like we was some kinda stubborn pigs. “Judgment day's a-comin'. Don't you know that? The One only saves his own blood. Ain't no room for godsfolk in the Kingdom. Everwho ain't confessed to the One ain't gon' be saved.”
A silent heartbeat. Then Daddy smiled at the man and said, “Somehow I think we aren't gonna need savin'. Gods willing.”
He turned and started walkin' away, Shem and me followin' close behind. But White Coat just couldn't let Daddy have the last word, so he hollered after us, voice carryin' across the marketplace. “Ask your ol' men! Think on your lore. The water'll choose!”
He started hummin' some ol' song, an' the ground beneath us shifted.
We knew there wasn't no chance the house'd stay up under all that water, so we piled every good we'd need, the food and crop seeds, onto one boat. We tied that to the other rower, the boat we was gonna be in, along with the blankets and candles. Daddy told us what to heave off first if the boat got too heavy. “The barrels'll have to go; we can take the food out and eat it, but there's no gettin' rid of the weight of a barrel itself 'cept by jettison. We've also gotta keep weight balance in mind. If the food bein' used up tips the balance 'tween the two boats, one of you's gon' have to go on the supply boat to even out the weight-”
“I'll go,” I said in a blink of the eye.
“That's my Cady-girl,” Daddy said, beamin'. “Now, both of you, get on in.”
For hours, it was all a-quiet. Daddy held us close and told us stories, stories 'bout other times the world tested godsfolk, stories 'bout how we always made it through the tryin' times, stronger people. I fell asleep to Daddy's stories, hours before the rain started comin' down. The water broke through our levees and rushed under the ground, just like they said it would, but me, I was dreamin'. I was dreamin' of Momma in the shadow land.
Eyarah ith ahlwa far enith deft dus, ahlwad ey,
fur lahn eyarah cuhmmin derh thanth lir wins haah ehr...
Strange words circled 'round my head, some of them just close 'nough to words Daddy an' Momma an' I'd speak, the rest words I ain't never heard, words only the old 'uns and the gods knowed. Eyarah ith ahlwa far enith deft dus, ahlwad ey... It was like the sounds were up 'gainst my skin, their meanin' not allowed in. I was just the dreamer. I was just a child. It weren't me the words were comin' for.
I looked at where my dream-self was. I reckonized the place a moment later—it was up the creek, near Brena town. Deep in the woods. Where Momma'd been headed. And there she was, climbin' around the bend, a spare kayak strapped to her back. Her eyes were so tired—they'd seen things none e'er saw before. That none'd e'er see since.
Eyarah ith ahlwa far enith deft dus, ahlwad ey...
Momma looked up at the sky. “They stole our language, took our land, set up th' One in your places... they can't take the gods.”
Who was she talkin' to?
“But they got power in their songs, power to flood our earth an' make our little ones scream with hurt.” Momma's face twisted with pain, imaginin' or maybe foreseein' me and Shem and White Coat and his One's flood—I shivered, scared, but her voice only rose. “This is your kingdom!” she was shoutin'. “An' we are your people! Let us fight 'gainst these waters, if not with earth then with fire!” Her eyes burned like a coal in the fireplace, flarin' up and flickerin' in and out, angry but still only one lick of flame. “Let us be your warriors! Help us save our children! If not for my sake, then for theirs.”
The ground a-started rumblin' and now Momma's eyes shone fire-white and lightnin' and the stars swallowed me up so I couldn't see her no more and them strange words were still ringin' in my ears, but I understood 'em now, just for a moment. It was the sacred prayer of the Old Ways that everybody used to say 'fore the One e'er came up to our valley. Eyarah ith ahlwa far... gods in the hollows of heav'n... enith deft dus... and the depths of the dust... ahlwad ey... hallow'd be... fur lahn eyarah cuhmmin... for Your kingdom'll come... derh thanth... faster than... lir wins... the wild winds... haah ehr... could e'er blow us away...
I dreamed, then I forgot.
Them driftin' days all blurred together in my head. Maybe it was years or hours or a life. All I payed real attention to was the big black water and Daddy and Shem and Momma's word that she'd be comin' back. Sometimes I'd forget she wasn't there and start talkin' to her. It got so cold out 'ere with only three of us. Cold and black. Those days, even Daddy had to light a candle in the very middle hours of the night, just to ward off the lonely dark. But it still felt like it was gonna swallow us all up. That's when Shem'd starta cry and Daddy'd starta pray in the mixed tongue that didn't never reach the ears of the white-coat preacher-man. Gods in the hollows of heav'n and the depths of the dust, hallow'd be, for your kingdom'll come faster than the wild winds could e'er blow us away...
Then, to comfort Shem, he'd say, “Only the gods know when this'll stop.” But he'd said “when”. It was always “when”. He knew that one li'l word meant a world to us. The gods'd see that this'd end in its time. All we had to do was stay afloat.
The last night of the flood, you could finally see the moon in the sky, full and brighter than the stars, brighter than the sun. I know this 'cause that was what I was lookin' up at when they came.
They must've been half wolf or somethin' the way they cut through the water with their eyes. But they were all just people, people in paddle boats, people I knowed—Bannin' Miller, Hettie Kettle, even Ol' Jonah Volk—all movin' towards us, lead by the man in the white coat. My heart started poundin' in my chest. They all believed in the One. They all believed in Judgment Day, and in this flood...
“Hey, y'all!” Shem said, smilin', wavin' at the Kettle boys. I pulled him away from the edge of our boat.
Daddy gave a nod to his fellow preacher. “Mighty high waters, eh?”
“Powerful high,” said the white-coat man, noddin' back. “Your gods e'er flood the earth?”
“Hells yes,” Daddy said with a laugh. “Look around.”
“Hells.” That hiss of an s in White Coat's voice again. Never boded well...
The wind began stirrin', but there was something hangin' on it, somethin' that made it not-quite-right and all kinds of scary. I brushed a strand of my hair back outta my eye. Shem started tuggin' on the sleeve of my jean jacket. “Cady, what's that? What're they doin'?” I told him to hush. “I gotta hear this. The man's sayin' somethin'. I gotta hear.”
I woulda expected him to be preachin' or prayin' or something. But no. He's... he was wailin', singin'. Tone deep and dark, tone of the smoke in the coal mines. Took me a right long time 'fore I reckonized the words. It's what he'd been hummin' the day before the flood. The song of the Sinnerman on the last day of the world. “Sinnerman, where you gon' run to... sinnerman, where you gon' run to...?”
The water at the bottom of the boat started inchin' upward, seepin' into the soles of my boots, but it wasn't til he'd started singin' that the black drops began to burn. Knife cold, moonlight cold, yet burnin' like the seven hells twistin' up the skin of my leg. I gritted my teeth. Can't let white coat see me. Can't let Daddy. Can't let Shem-
Shem. He was cryin'. I could feel his pain in my bones—big black water was so cold, so cold it made the scabs on my knees burst out and bleed. So cold. But scaldin', too... And the preacher-man of the One just kept on a-singin'. “Run to the rock, the rock, it was a-meltin', oh, run to the rock, the rock, it was a-meltin'... run to the rock! Rock, why you a-meltin', all on that day?”
“Daddy,” I said, prayin' that the gods'd keep me calm enough to face the day. “Daddy, you feel it too?”
His eyes widened. “Cady... what're you talking about? What'd you feel? Why's Shem screamin' like that?” Now I could tell Daddy was breakin' too, e'en though he weren't feelin' what we were. Hurt he couldn't understand or do nothin' about. “What the hells are you doing to my children?!”
The white coat man's eyes were black like the land 'fore time. “Run to the sea, the sea, it was a-boilin'... oh, run to the sea, the sea, it was a-boilin'...”
“You don't wanna do this to me!” Daddy gave a piercin' shout back, lookin' at the devil faces of all the people 'round us. “Jonah, you know best of all wha' happens-”
“The water'll choose,” the ol' man said simply. “An' it chose us.”
“—DADDY!—” Shem was cryin' so hard, he made Daddy cry. And me... No. No. I couldn't let myself cry. I couldn't.
Was this the One that the flock down at the town church claims'd save their souls? Weren't there no rest for the sinnerman, if that's what they said we was?
Run to the moon, the moon, it was a-bleedin', oh, run to the moon, the moon, it was a-bleedin', oh, run to the moon...
Moon, why you a-bleedin'?
...all on that—
Crack. Thunder. What was that? What was that brightness? All I could see was a web of light, stars all connected by bridges of glowin' dust—but it was standin' right where Daddy'd been.
No. No. It was Daddy. The shapes the stars were makin' were him. Burnt inside out with fire, but still him, somehow... He'd transformed. He'd transformed into what Momma'd asked to become, started to become in my dream. The warrior of the gods.
Another crack came, this time with a burst of lightnin' in the distance. But the lightnin' stayed in the air. Took me two seconds of an eternity to know it was Momma. I woulda known her anywhere—her promise was still inside me, glowin' with fire to push the cold, black water out.
Eyarah ith ahlwa far enith deft dus, ahlwad ey, fur lahn eyarah cuhmmin derh thanth lir wins haah ehr...
The lightnin' struck our boat an' Momma was right along 'side Daddy. Not my children, they both said.
The lightnin' creatures moved in right perfect time with each other, lungin' past the brim of the boats they were comin' from. The air rippled with ember light.
The boats 'round me were jolted back, faster than they came. Faster and faster the light propelled them, e'en as the water 'neath us all churned and boiled, still magicked by the Sinnerman song. But now its singer's boat was at the edge o' sight, winds whippin' back the edges of his white, white coat, and soon him and his followers'd been pushed away, all gone.
Daddy and Momma started fadin' back into people. Daddy ran first thing to Shem, cradlin' him like he was still in the crib. “Shh, shh, baby. It'll all be over, it'll all be over soon.” I clung close to all of them, buryin' my head into their still-glowin' shoulders.
But there weren't no change in their eyes. They'd come so far, wantin' to protect us, and they'd changed so much. Their eyes were still smolderin', burnin' up whatever was on the inside keepin' them goin', and now they were halfway 'tween heav'n and the hells.
Where you gon' run to, all on that day?