THEY SET THE CRATE in the belly of the boat, pointed the bow south, and floated on the thick current, under the broken arches of the bridges. Passed City Island, the flooded marina. The stadium overgrown with trees and split by shells. The baseball field now a cratered forest. Depressions filled with water from the rain, the river pushing out of the ground, flooding the roots of monumental maples. The whole place, the whole city, going under, for too much at last had been asked of it.
Reverend Bauxite looked away, then forced himself to look back. Smacked his lips and pulled a pipe from his jacket. Packed it with bits of dried apple, scraps of tobacco. He had not lit it in fifteen months. He missed the smoke, but the smell and taste of it were still there, a tang in his mouth. The feel of the bone against his teeth and tongue, and he was in his rectory again, years ago. The stained brick, the stone stairs. The dusty scent in the hallway, a hint of impending mildew. He could never figure out where it came from. In his office, blue carpeting, white linen curtains for the bay window. He was leaning against his desk, his fingers following the deep scratches in the top. Talia sat in a faded pink wingback chair, legs crossed, examining her nails. Speaking to him in a singsong voice, a lilt of minor thirds. Reverend, she said, your parishioners, myself included, think you should do more services around Lent. She was in the third row on the aisle every Sunday, fixed her eyes on him from the first word of his sermon to the last, closed her eyes when she sang. Always looked at him as if she already knew a truth that would take him years to discover.
The war was so distant from him then. Reports of small calamities from people moving north on the river. There’s been some blood down there, they’d say. A couple towns burned in Georgia, North Carolina. Outside the rectory, they were celebrating the end of the monsoon. Boys beating on boxes and trash cans. Sixteen of the people in the choir singing and clapping their hands. A small mob in the street, shaking and shuffling, just glad for the sun. The church rising behind them, straight and serene. The light falling all over the city, taking the water away. It rose in columns of steam, as if Harrisburg was on fire, but when the mist dispersed, the city was still whole. That day, it was possible to imagine it always would be. For the city was weathered and sparking, a place of chipped houses on narrow streets, and you could read on its face what it had seen. During the Civil War, it saw soldiers and munitions heading south on the trains, corpses heading north, while young men trained for more slaughter in a camp on the edge of town, parading with bayonets before rows of white tents, as if they thought the war would be orderly. During the Cold War, it got a small dose of what everyone else was so afraid of. Not an explosion, but a meltdown, emptying the streets and houses, the people thinking about giving up on the place. But they didn’t, not yet. Once, before Reverend Bauxite was born, even before the rivers rose and the trees came to swallow everything, when the last factories were not quite dead and the capital was still the capital, Pennsylvania still Pennsylvania, old men in wool jackets smoked in the bars of hotels with wrought-iron porches. On a sunny summer evening the streets teemed with people. A handsome couple rode in a red convertible with whitewall tires, a cooler of beer hanging open in the backseat. On a night of torrential rain, a slack teenager with long oily hair served Middle Eastern food to three out-of-towners, who could not keep a straight face at the things he said. Is the food any good? Because I’ve never eaten here. Here—bringing some fruit on a platter at the end of the meal—he told me to give these to you. The out-of-towners talked about him for years afterward, wrote it down in their diaries, and it fixed the city in their minds. Kept it alive for as long as they were, and after they were gone. Had the Confederate army come to Harrisburg instead of Gettysburg, had Three Mile Island been worse, Harrisburg might have died sooner, and I would not be able to tell you anything about it. It is gone now, and my memory of it, from before the war, before everything else, is all I have. If I had known when I was there that it would be gone so soon—if I had known all that was coming—I would have tried harder to remember more. To write it down then, instead of now, when I have forgotten so much.
They drifted past the islands off Steelton, under the broken span of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Rounded the bend in the river near the blasted runway of the airport, Sunny Jim steering in the back. The destruction all seemed remote from them. Reverend Bauxite was always seeing it, the world without the war. Had to believe it would end, for all things passed, did they not, save one? On the land were burnt houses, the remains of firefights. Women kneeling in the street before a relative, bleeding away. Scorched trees, black vines, hanging over the current on the shore. Dogs in the leafy darkness at night. And in the river, fish hovered, water striders rode the surface. Herons stalked the shallows. As if the war had never begun.
Reverend Bauxite had seen it even the night Aline left. All along the Harrisburg shore, human screams and the roar of explosions. The end of the world for them, an end in fire. But all around him, mayflies rose in the air, trout leapt to catch them before their flight. He waded into the water, lifted his arms, and the flow of the Susquehanna whispered around his calves. It flowed as the bridge fell into it. Flowed as it put the fires out. We put our dead into it, our dead and mountains of slag, and still it flowed, Reverend Bauxite thought. We dug tunnels beneath it and it broke its way in, filled them, and flowed. It could wash away anything in time, without hurry or judgment, as it did before we ever saw it, as it would when we could not see anymore. But he was not consoled.
Evening was falling into night by the time they reached Three Mile Island. The river, a thin skin over the drowned causeway. Plants pulling down the rusted fence at the periphery. The road in the facility cracked by grass and saplings. A huge pine had burst through the pavement and shot for the sky, half its head knocked off by an errant shell, but still alive. The cooling towers spilled over with vines that ran in veins down their hourglass sides. Once they had been the house of the angel of death, who spread its wings over the city, getting ready to sweep everything up into it. Now they were filling with soil that trees took root in, braiding their branches together, competing for light. The cries of animals echoed inside. Keening bats, chirping birds. The hoots of small mammals. Someday, Reverend Bauxite thought, the towers would fill up all the way, the vines would cover all of them. Or the soil would be too much for the concrete to bear, and the towers would crack in two, the earth rumble out. Turn this island into a hill. He could not decide if that would be the end of us or the beginning. The glimpse of a revelation.
They lay down to sleep in the towers’ shadows, in a rusting trailer crawling with honeysuckle. A single copper cable, insulated with green plastic, jumped from a hole in the side, slithered into the river. Inside the trailer, two bunks, a big blue phone. A plastic bag with three changes of clothes. They had been moving ever since the resistance lost Harrisburg and the occupying army moved in. No more than two nights in any one place, stringing up a pirated telephone line in twenty minutes that could be taken down in ten. Floors of wet concrete, warping walls losing their plaster, spun with jagged cracks. They stared at the water damage, squinting their eyes. Played a game with each other that they used to play with Aaron. It looks like a big maple, Reverend Bauxite said. No, like a bunch of lightning bolts, said Sunny Jim. Like an old hairbrush. Like a dried-out spider. Both of them missed the boy so much, though the games brought him closer. Then Sunny Jim slept. Almost every night, Reverend Bauxite lay awake for too long after that, returning to the day his church fell. He had been outside when it happened, saw three holes appear in the tiled roof, a fourth in the wall. Heard the incoming whines of artillery a beat later. Then a bright light from within, a tremulous roar, and the church folded in on itself, became a pile of burning stone. There were forty-eight people in there, his parishioners, who had come to him for refuge. He did not know how to get them out.
When he had celebrated with his congregation before the war, their voices had multiplied on the ceiling in song. The echo when they were finished never sounded like dying, only like the sound was moving away from them, out into the world. Their voices must be moving still, Reverend Bauxite thought. Understood that believing in their persistence was a matter of faith. But he still longed to see his people, to know that they had lifted themselves from the fire. He had asked his God to grant him this, even though it meant that his faith was wavering. That he was not as strong a vessel as he wanted to be.
The toes of animals tapped on the metal roof in the dark. You should go get your boy, Jim, Reverend Bauxite wanted to say. Aline is not coming back. But Sunny Jim was asleep then, listening only for her.
* * *
REVEREND BAUXITE MET ALINE two months before the front came to Harrisburg. A meeting in the capitol building, with the mayor, several clergy, and four resistance leaders talking about what had happened in Baltimore. Horror stories. A vision of hell, Biblical violence, a village burned to nothing, people suffering an angry God’s wrath. Brother will betray brother to death, Reverend Bauxite thought, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next. For truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. Gray light poured through the windows. The pulsing wind rattled at a crack in the glass. The light bulbs in the ceiling had burned out long ago. After the speeches, Aline came over to Bauxite, smiling her sideways smile, her hand extended. Her palm a pad of callus. Something sharp embedded in the skin, a stone, an erratic jewel of shrapnel. She did not even know it was there.
“The war’s coming this way,” Aline had said. “You planning on taking a side, Father?”
“I’m on the Lord’s side.”
“And what side’s He on?”
“The one that helps those who suffer, and causes the least of the suffering.”
“And where was He in Baltimore?”
“I told you I’m on His side. I don’t pretend to know His mind.”
“You’re making God sound like my husband.”
Sunny Jim seemed half gone already when Reverend Bauxite met him, a stained photograph of another man. Said little. Never made eye contact. His thin fingers working. Reverend Bauxite thought maybe he was sick. Then he met the three of them together—Aline, Jim, and their boy—and understood. Aline and Aaron, flush with color. Aline’s big voice, Aaron’s shout. A spindly kid hopping up the stoop on one foot, jumping back down in a single leap. A run at the telephone pole to shimmy up it. He could bite electrical wire in half, Reverend Bauxite thought, send off sparks and swing out over the rooftop. Aline laughed, her elbow resting on the butt of a machine gun. Then Sunny Jim smiled and Reverend Bauxite saw it, a ray of warmth passing from husband to wife, father to son. Sunny Jim drew it from somewhere else, took just enough to keep him here, gave the rest to them. Did not mind the cold that came after.
“That’s why I’m here,” Sunny Jim had said. “I don’t care who wins the war. I just want it to end. I just want to get them through it.”
“And then what?” Reverend Bauxite had said.
“Does it matter? As long as I’m with them?”
They split a bottle of bitter whiskey that night in the kitchen of a brick house near the shell of an old factory. A candle on the table, the flame burning low and slow. The smell of a fire outside seeping under the front door. Aline out. Aaron asleep in the dark room above them. The talk between the two men was easy and expansive. It was talk before wartime, but something else, too, the sense of a common soul between them so strong that, after only an hour or two, they were telling each other things they had never told anyone. Sunny Jim had been looking for the man to replace him if the bullet, the shell, came for him, knew they were both staying out of the fight. Decided there was no time to waste.
“You’ll take care of my boy with me?” he said.
“Of course,” Reverend Bauxite said.
“Until Aline can do it?”
“Yes. I promise.”
Two days before the war came to Harrisburg, the resistance was massing weapons in the street in front of the church. Stacks of rifles, jumbled boxes of ammunition. The guerrillas working in eerie quiet. All thinking of the noise to come. Of crouching in a ditch while the earth exploded. Clothes wet with blood, urine, gastric fluid. Reverend Bauxite and Sunny Jim stood on the steps with Aaron. The boy wanted to carry one of the rifles, wanted to know how to shoot one. Sunny Jim’s hands were on his shoulders, fingers tight.
“I don’t want any part of this,” Sunny Jim said.
“Me neither,” Reverend Bauxite said.
But then the church fell, and Reverend Bauxite found Sunny Jim and Aaron in a slumping apartment on Agate Street. The son playing with a yo-yo that the father made from a spool. The father watching the street for violence. Reverend Bauxite gray with ash, on his face and hands, worked into his clothes.
“They knocked my church down,” he said.
“Sit,” Sunny Jim said. Shook his head. Thought for a few minutes without moving, because he did not want to lose this man. Could not afford to.
“I guess you have to do something about it,” he said.
“Yes,” Reverend Bauxite said. “If only to end the fighting sooner.”
“I understand.” Then: “No guns,” he said. “There are enough already.”
But there was so much else to do. Engineering and sabotage. Said they were there to install a generator, robbed power from battalions. Clipped cables. Filled frequencies with noise. Kept lines open for guerrillas huddled in apartments carpeted with shattered glass, rifles angling from empty window frames chipped by enemy fire. Listened on headphones so Sunny Jim could hear Aline’s voice, know she was alive. They worked in the day amid fires, the rush of falling shells, rising smoke. At night, under the stripes of tracers, pink arcs of flares. They always took Aaron with them. Kept him where they could see him. We need to keep him safe, they kept telling each other. But even Grendel Jones, their commander, noticed how the boy seemed to be good luck, how the fighting never touched him, like a blind giant groping for a wily insect.
“The war can’t find that kid,” Grendel Jones told Sunny Jim one night. “Won’t find you or the priest either, as long as you’re with him.” She did not finish the thought out loud, how Aline would have to fend for herself. For Sunny Jim would never take his son to the front’s annihilating edge, and Aline would almost never leave it. There was so much about Aline that Grendel Jones could not understand. Why, when the fighting started, a spark lit inside her. Why she had a family. Why her family wanted her. She could not see into that, or get Sunny Jim to explain. So she never learned how Sunny Jim and Aline had pulled each other through and away from the leanest years of their lives. How, when the war came and everyone else panicked, they looked at each other and nodded, recognized the shapes of their own pasts in the face of the war’s violence, knew what it was, even as it began to pull them apart.
Perhaps that was why the boy was the charm he was. He was the best of both of them. He warded off the mayhem, just by breathing, that his parents had taken years to learn how to survive. Aaron, Sunny Jim, and Reverend Bauxite had shacked up one night in a burned-out apartment building near the state capitol, moved out at dawn. That afternoon, a flurry of mortars leveled the building. A firefight broke out on a busy street only twenty minutes after Aaron left it, killed forty-seven people, too many of them children, but left him unharmed. The boy played amid cracking masonry while his father strung wire to a satellite dish on a factory roof. Sat in the bottom of the boat when they crossed the river. Slept through bombing raids and firefights, woke up hours later, blinking and yawning. He did not know what power he had.
Didn’t, until six months ago on North Second Street. There had been a market there in full bloom, vegetables and animals amok. The sweetness of picked fruit, sourness of butchered flesh, tang of hay, flowing together in the air. Reverend Bauxite and Sunny Jim passing through, cable slung from Jim’s hip. Aaron zigging and zagging, curb to curb. Then a shell, a bomb—they argued later, for they never went back—and everything was quiet but for the moaning. They were far enough away to only be thrown, knocked down. By the time Reverend Bauxite could see, Sunny Jim was already cradling his son, a dirty hand over the boy’s eyes.
“Dad, come on, let me see.”
Soot was snowing on a wide wound in the pavement. The skin of people blown back and away. A slurry of blood and dirt. A knee on the sidewalk, disconnected from everything else, a scrap of denim wrapped around it.
“We have to get Aaron out of this place,” Sunny Jim said.
“Where can he go?” Reverend Bauxite said.
“My sister’ll take him.”
“Your sister can protect him?”
Sunny Jim just looked at him. Ended the discussion. Reverend Bauxite acquiesced, and Sunny Jim sent the word up the highway to Lisle, thirty miles over the border into New York. Merry was there within two days for the boy.
“We won’t be able to talk,” she said. “Just come and get him when you’re ready.” They turned to go, but not before Aaron hugged both men. It was then that Reverend Bauxite understood how the past few weeks had changed him, how the duty Sunny Jim had given him had become a mission. He thought he had begun to see a tiny fragment of God’s plan in the boy, let himself hope that maybe there was one, even if he could not say what it was. Aaron had given him some of his church back, and now he was losing it again.
Merry and Aaron were gone before Aline returned. The mother railed when she found out, screamed for three hours.
“How could you leave him with her?” she said.
“The reverend and I talked about it. It’s the best we could do.”
“The reverend is not his mother. I am. You should have asked me first.”
He glared at her. You should have been around to be asked. Why the hell are you doing this, anyway? When Aaron was born, when the war began, he’d thought that both their fighting years were done. She’d known all along that only his were. He was so angry at her for that, yet still loved her so much. The two were chained together. Then: “You’re right. I’m sorry,” he said. The apology offered only because it did not matter anymore—Aaron had been sent away, and there was no getting him back unless they went for him themselves—and Aline knew it. What Sunny Jim said next, he would regret for the rest of his life, for it was as if he had been given powers of prophecy for that moment and failed to see it, could not hear his own message.
“We’ll go and get Aaron when you and the war are done with each other,” he said.
And since the Market Street Bridge, since Aline left, Reverend Bauxite and Sunny Jim had been having the same conversation in their heads again and again.
We should go get your boy.
No. I have to wait until she comes back. Then we’ll go get Aaron together.
She’s not coming back.
Yes she is.
How do you know?
I just know.
Nothing of it spoken between them. They could read it on each other, their faces wrinkled pages. Words hiding in the folds of their clothes. She was made of letters then, as all of us are now. Here, in these words. Us and the city and the towns and river, and everything else, too. All that we know, and everything—everyone—we wish we knew.
* * *
ALONG THE RIVER, THE market was already coming back, growing up around the ruins of the day before. The singsong calls of vendors, the shrieks of birds, gutter talk of larger animals, goats, cows. A troop of monkeys patrolled the dark, dank aisles, turning wares in their hands. The occupying soldiers were off the ground, standing in the backs of jeeps, behind weapons of comical size. The vehicles verging on tipping over. Propaganda barking from a loudspeaker planted on the roof. We are a force of peace. It is the resistance that fights us. Sunny Jim was already watching the soldiers’ eyes, was gone before Reverend Bauxite knew it. Sunny Jim’s gift, he thought, was to become invisible, granted because there was so little keeping him here. He watched a soldier watching him, a woman with a ponytail sneaking out from under her helmet. The helmet too big, the jacket too small. The soldier turned to Reverend Bauxite, eyebrows raised. Seemed to see in him, then, all that he had done, for he was not like Sunny Jim. He was an open man, his passions playing in the air around him. The same thing that made him a fire, a beacon, in the pulpit, made him a failure at espionage. They should have left days ago, he thought. Gone north and found Aaron, then west, across all that land. The war could not have broken it all. They still could go, he thought. Change their clothes, their hair, their names, until Reverend Bauxite and Sunny Jim were just two more men who died somewhere back in all that fighting, and their new selves were free.
That night they hid in the last building standing on the block of Peffer and North Seventh, a red brick house that used to lean on its neighbors, but had nothing to lean on now. The stairs falling off the porch. Window frames angling with rain and gravity. A kitchen half-gutted by rot, a gas stove with no gas. Across North Seventh, the railroad tracks were torn up in twelve places. They could see the remains of the capitol from the roof, burned down again. They drew the place where the building’s dome had been in the air with their fingers. They listened to the howling of monkeys in the houses near them, sirens from the other side of the bridge. There were alarms all over the city that night. Neither of them knew why.
Their phone rang again after midnight. Reverend Bauxite had his speech prepared. We can’t do your work anymore. Aaron can’t lose a father, too. But Grendel Jones’s voice on the other end was small. Something has happened to the west and north of us, she said. No. Something is happening to the west and north.
“What do you mean?” Reverend Bauxite said.
“You won’t believe me when I tell you,” Grendel Jones said. She was right. Reverend Bauxite argued and shook his head. There must be some mistake. Nothing like that can be happening. Nothing.
“What are you talking about?” Sunny Jim said.
There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth, distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves, Reverend Bauxite thought. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.
“You won’t believe me,” Reverend Bauxite said.
But Jim believed every word. He stood there nodding and frowning. Aaron. My favorite boy. Why did I ever let you leave me?
“We can get on the highway now,” he said. “Get there as fast as we can.”
“No, we can’t,” Reverend Bauxite said. “The war is there. And the army is looking for you. They’re looking for both of us.”
All because of Aline. We never should have gotten involved.
We didn’t have a choice, Jim. Not a real one. Not one that was right.
There is always a choice, and we chose.
“How are we going to do this, then?” Sunny Jim said.
Reverend Bauxite looked out the window, toward the Susquehanna. The long meandering stripe through the Pennsylvania hills that drowned the railroad track, spread into valleys. It could take them all the way to Scranton, ahead of the war, without the army ever seeing them. Maybe all the way to Binghamton. Lose a few days, but it was worth it if it meant staying invisible. They would get there just in time, before the storm hit. The Big One, Grendel Jones was already calling it. A storm as wide as the horizon. Maybe as wide as the sea.
“We could go up the river,” he said.
“Nobody’s going up the river now,” Sunny Jim said.
“Someone must be.”
“How do you know?”
“I don’t,” Reverend Bauxite said. “But someone has to be. Don’t they?”
His faith again, shaking. He tried to keep his voice from doing the same.
* * *
DO YOU SEE? HOW the world is now? Nobody can say quite how it came to be this way. There is too much. There is not enough. It started generations ago, and so much has been lost, and even all that I found does not help. You wake up and the country is on fire, as far as you can see. How can you find the match that started it?
Our great-grandparents told our grandparents that things were different once, when they were children. A little colder. Simpler. Not as many people were dying. That the change was slow, slow enough to argue about it. A gradual, creeping shift. A field full of cars, grown over with grass and stalks of trees. The plants tipping the cars over, breaking them apart. A massacre three decades long. In West Virginia, we had leveled a green range of peaks into a gray waste, spotted with the rusting yellow metal of abandoned machinery. In Pennsylvania and New York, we had drilled for gas until the rock broke and the water went bad, and the towns that used to drink it died. We burned and we burned, until there was more smoke than fuel, and then things started to come apart. The roads breaking into rifts of jutting asphalt. Libraries with caved-in roofs, full of decaying books and dead monitors. We saw these things and yelled at each other. The system had been built on argument, believing that any problem could be fixed, explained, weaseled out of, with enough money, the right words. Until the problem was physics, and then there was only what we did and how the planet responded. It did not matter what we said after that, though we kept talking anyway. As if it was all we had.
There must have been a day, a single day, when it was too late, when we could not go back, but nobody can remember when it was. The storms started coming, more and more of them. A typhoon walloped in from the ocean, put an entire city underwater, and the water tore half the place down when it receded. Tornadoes swept across towns that could have lasted for centuries more, turned houses, fences, and cars into giant fields of shredded wood and metal strewn with the dead and everything they had loved. The bare trunks of dead trees that the wind had snapped in half and stripped of bark reached for the sky like scorched hands. The survivors staggered through the broken streets, stunned and shouting. Far away, there was news of entire countries flooded. Places where people had been for thousands of years, gone. In Richmond, Virginia, I found photographs in the basement of an apartment building showing a massive fleet of dilapidated ships arriving at a port, maybe in New Jersey, maybe Maryland. Maybe everywhere. Old cruise ships streaked with oil and smoke, tankers of rust, dropping sheets of corroded metal into the sea when they shuddered to a stop. Filled with people with clothes rotting off their backs. In those pictures, the seawalls our great-grandparents had put around the cities were still there. The ocean knocking on the door, about to let itself in. It took maybe seventy years. A growing beat, they say, of stronger and stronger storms, a long chain of hurricanes, until the walls gave way and the streets went under, buildings fell. Savannah. Atlantic City. A freak storm in Boston. A ragged swath carved out of New York. The remaining cities cringing with every change of season, every gathering of clouds, waiting for the Big One. A tide of survivors inland, looking for things that were not there. The government able to do less and less, until it was just men in frayed suits, arguing in buildings where the power kept going out, whose surroundings were turning back to swampland. The borders on the maps of America getting hazy, the names and the boundaries becoming lines and letters of no significance. Then there were just the cities and the towns, and the land all around. As though the planet was taking it all back from us. You could almost see it happening before your eyes, our grandparents said. The trees rushing over empty fields, year after year. Jumping from one dead farm to the next. The diseases followed, one after the other.
The war, the war. There was no Fort Sumter, no Pearl Harbor, no moment that we all understood at once that we were fighting. No one to tell us things had changed. There must have been a first shot fired, perhaps two men—it must have been men—arguing over where one’s land began and another’s ended, a first bullet flinging a ribbon of heat through the air. Another one shot back. But I have to believe they did not know what they were starting. If they knew, why would they have shot? An army was raised, a resistance arose. By the time Charlotte, North Carolina, burned, nobody was asking what it was about anymore. It was about territory. It was about food and water: who had it, who did not. The old fights, the ones we had fought since we got here, the ones our ancestors brought with them when they came here, all those bitter old things becoming new again. It was about how much we had done to the planet, and the way the planet, at last, had turned its great eye to us in anger. You have done enough. The war was about everything, it was everything, and the question of where it came from was meaningless. There was only the question of how to live through it.
The war came for us, my daughter and I, four years ago, in Charleston, West Virginia. We had moved six times, on a ragged diagonal across the South, from a washed-out beach house in South Carolina into the mountains. Slept in a garage outside of Roanoke, listened to the flood of rain find its way through the roof. Sat against the wall of a freight car with thirty other people, my arms around my little girl, while the train screamed and banged along the old Winchester and Western rails, too loud to rest. In Charleston, we heard the war was coming up the Kanawha river valley, talked about moving again. But the trees all around Charleston were in bloom, and we had a house, just big enough for us both, with a small yard behind it, a cinder-block wall. We were so tired of moving. Always thought we had more time. Three days later I was howling in the bottom of a metal boat with a man who had lost both his arms, shells exploding all around us. Then we drifted toward the Ohio, away from the war. He died when everything got quiet.
Do you see? The story I have left to tell is so small, of the people who stayed when everyone else fled. Two men going upriver to get a boy. Four soldiers going up the highway after them. Then the house where everything converged. But I had a child, too, strong and small. I lost her when I lost that house in Charleston, and I do not know where she has gone. And since then, I have been to Baltimore, to New York. I saw what happened to Philadelphia. I stood at the edge of a mass grave in Maryland, next to the parking lot of an abandoned shopping center. I walked through the windows of a fallen bell tower in Delaware that had crashed into the street after the bombs came for it. I was in a firefight in West Virginia, all oil and darkness and screaming animals, and when it was over, nothing but moans and crying, the ground swampy and fetid with blood and pieces of men. A tree hung with human limbs. I want to tell you their names, all those people who died around me, but I cannot say who they were.
I even went west to see the Big One coming in, because I needed to see it, to tell you. I stood on the ridge of the Appalachians and looked toward where the sun was supposed to be, toward the north, too, and saw no sky at all. Just a boiling wall of clouds, gray and green and sparked with red lightning, and underneath it, a curtain of flying black rain, rippling with wild wind from one end of the earth to the other. The sound of constant thunder. I watched it take a town in the valley, far away below, and it was as though a wave were rolling across the ground, lifting houses, roads, trees, and all—anything that was still there—up into the air, into the mouth of the storm. It was still rising, into the darkness, when I lost sight of it. It must have been so loud on the ground, the earth and rain and sky all screaming together, but I could not hear any of it. I wanted to say something then, but I did not have the words. There are no words for so much loss, not right after it happens. They come in time, but sometimes it takes years, and we do not always have years. My great-grandfather did not have them when he tried to speak of the towns all over upstate New York, the way the people seemed to dwindle year after year, the old ones falling into the earth, the young ones just not there the next day, as if plucked away. The decay of the houses moving across the villages and cities. Windows broken, then boarded. The lawns tangling with twisting young maples, black walnut, until the main roads were just strips of dying buildings, rusting bridges, sidewalks breaking apart. He loved it all so much. How would it ever come back? He would say these things, get that far, then try to tell you what had been lost, what he had seen himself. Then he’d just shake his head, put his hand over his eyes instead. It was the same thing for us as for them. Just much faster for us. For us, even less time.
We do not know what is on the other side of the storm. We cannot get around it, and the few who have tried to go over it say it never seems to end. We have heard that it came in from the Pacific like a tsunami, that it ate the coast. It crashed into the Rockies and crested them, then charged across the plains, tearing up towns and crops, roads and telephone lines. Pulling us all off the land, us and all we had built there. All the people who could not run, did not want to, we have not heard from since the storm passed over them. No letters, no signals, no photographs. No messages crackling across the wires. A veil is falling across the country, one long shattering shriek at its edge, and behind it, nothing but darkness and silence.
Though perhaps you are not silent. Maybe you can see things that I cannot, see them with utter clarity. Maybe you walked up to the storm and passed through it, because you were not as afraid as we were. Did you leave us behind, then, or take us with you? Or were we on the other side when you got there, lost and waiting?
* * *
WHEN WE ALL LEARNED what was coming, there were reports of desertions, from the army, from the resistance. Soldiers just disappearing into the woods. Others found outside their camps with entrance wounds in the back of their heads, caught trying to leave by an officer the war had gotten the better of. A small string of suicides. A town somewhere upriver had, in a few days, lost all its citizens. In Harrisburg, the occupying army drove a van armed with loudspeakers through the tight downtown blocks around the state capital. Do not listen to the news today. It is full of lies. The sky over the city was enough like it had always been that they could say that and get away with it.
Sunny Jim and Reverend Bauxite rowed north, past the high-water marks on Rockville Bridge, up through the rapids at Marysville, to a herd of islands on a ten-thousand-year drift across the river’s width. One of the islands’ rocky spits had split in two with the effort, and Sunny Jim and Reverend Bauxite followed the channel up its course through a crevasse of dense vines, animals hooting in the shadows. For a few minutes, they were the only people left in the world. It was just them and the yellow boat, the water beneath. The trees closing around them. Roots walking into the water. Branches above their heads taking away the sky. Then the channel opened and the trees pulled back around an island smaller than a house, a single linden, gnarled and gigantic, hanging by its roots over the rippling water. A man with a rifle crouched in the tree’s crook, the barrel following them as they entered. Two people stood in the gravel on the inside of the channel’s curve. One of them Grendel Jones. Reverend Bauxite and Sunny Jim had seen her less than a month ago when the shells were falling, her hand on a radio, sending orders across the wires. She had caught their eyes and smiled, just once. Thought they were going to win. Now she was hobbling on a cane, scraggly hair tied back. Five parallel scratches striping her face from cheek to forehead. Her face rubbed in it. Your town and everything you loved. Let go of it all now before it hurts too much.
“Is it true?” Sunny Jim said. “About the north?”
“What do you want me to say?” Grendel Jones said. There was electricity between her and Sunny Jim that could have been mistaken for attraction, but was not. She was the war to him, embodied its rage. You stole my wife from me, Sunny Jim had told her once. Made me send my son away. Give me back my family. And that was before the Market Street Bridge went down.
She reached inside her frayed overcoat, brought out a battered envelope that looked like it had been sealed twenty years ago, though it was just the night before. The paper inside first being tacked to a plank of wood spongy with rot, so Grendel could write with her only hand, fingers stained with the dirty oil burning in the lamp. The light was a target for snipers, she knew. She was not so much careless as callous. Shoot me if you can, she thought. The war keeps taking pieces of me anyway. Makes the rest of me harder to hit.
“There’s one boat still going upriver,” she said. “Called the Carthage.”
“How will we find it?” Sunny Jim said.
“You’ll find it.” Gave him the envelope. “You’ll meet the boat at the Clarks Ferry Bridge. They’ll let everyone on. Always do. But if you give them this, they’ll take extra care of you. Take you as far as you need.”
“Thanks,” Sunny Jim said. She could tell how it hurt him to say it. In his grief, his anger, at Aline not being with him, he was making Grendel Jones complicit in her absence. The commanding officer felt it, too, the guilt and horror at her own power whenever she stopped to contemplate it. She gave an order, and people died. She could take lives just by speaking.
“Just get your boy,” she said. Then caught his eye. I’m so sorry about Aline.
What do you want me to say?
That you forgive me.
I can’t forgive you yet. Forgiving you would mean letting her go.
In Baltimore, the bones of Grendel Jones’s left arm lay under a collapsed apartment building, softened by water. The rain was taking down all that was left of that city, the rain and the vines and trees, its accomplices. Wildflowers stormed along Falls Road. Tendrils of kudzu snaked around the Bromo Seltzer Tower. Plants and animals burying our dead for us. Turning us and all that we did into soil, then digging their roots in deep. They would never let us come back.
Grendel was not yet a soldier when she lost her arm. She was only there to care for her aunt, an invalid. After the first rocket attacks, they sat in her aunt’s apartment, pushed the wheelchair up to the window. Watched a line of people leaving, a centipede of refugees. A family of five. The father with a coffee table and a rolled-up rug tied to his back. The mother with a bundle of clothes balanced on her head. Their children on leashes running from their waists to their parents’ hands, staggering with the movement of drunken spiders. So little sound for so many people.
“They’re overreacting,” her aunt said, frowning. “This will all blow over soon.” Her resolve never left her, even when the rockets came dozens a day and it seemed that someone was always firing a gun somewhere. Even when the flames turned the nights into the last minutes of evening for good, as though the sun were not allowed to set. When Grendel told her aunt about the massacres, she refused to believe it.
“People don’t do that to each other,” she said.
Fire, fire, I heard the cry, from every breeze that passes by. All the world was one sad cry of pity.
Grendel’s arm left her as she stood in the doorway to the apartment building. It was wearing a blue sleeve with a white cuff, was holding cooking oil in a plastic bottle. The rocket’s explosion threw the rest of her into the street, though she was already unconscious by then. When she woke up, she was lying on the deck of a barge in the Chesapeake Bay. A thin mat beneath her. The stump of her arm, bandaged, dirty. The Bay Bridge dim in the twilight. To the north and east, all of Baltimore consumed by fire or water, a long ragged band of orange light raging above the broken seawalls, the drowned streets, a mist of steam. Her aunt back there somewhere. On the barge with her, a small horde of survivors huddled under canvases, prone on the metal deck. A woman shaking with quiet sobs. A man sedated out of his head, still groaning on every pull of the saw that was taking off his right leg above the knee. A banjo and mandolin, two voices high and loose, their throats too smoky to get it quite right.
Oh Katy dear, go ask your mama
If you can be a bride of mine.
If she says yes, come back and tell me.
If she says no, we’ll run away.
She was a glass jar dropped from a great height, then. No putting back together the past that had scattered from her head. Her life began again in that minute on the Chesapeake Bay, in ash and strained song. But her life before is back there somewhere, in the miles of her childhood before the war. Picnic tables rough from winter after winter. A biting insect clinging to a tree. Ankle-deep in a creek in early spring, her toes frozen already. A friend standing there with her, grimacing. You get out first. No, you. It all matters, it has to, even if she cannot remember it.
She became a guerrilla as soon as she could. Ascended through the ranks of the resistance until she was a field commander, ever in the calm land a mile or two ahead of the front. She learned to smell it, feel it, as animals sense weather, when it wavered and flexed. Spared some towns and destroyed others. She was ahead of it all through Maryland and into Pennsylvania. Knew what it meant when she got the orders to march to Harrisburg and settle in. They were going to be there a while, she thought, anyone could have guessed it. But she could even see it, in the way the city sat on the riverbank. The steps to the water. The bridges thrown across it, the stone arcades of their arches. A fortress already. The war would be fought in alleys. Window by window. Entire battles hinged on the turn of a staircase.
She met Aline a month before Harrisburg, after hearing about her two months before. The battle of Cumberland. Horses on fire, screaming, their manes trailing stripes of smoke. The resistance could never have turned the army back—it was ten to one—but they made them bleed for every brick of that old city in the steep valley, left them a smaller thing. The wounded lying under open sky in the shadow of the clock tower. Masonry cracked by concussion. Nothing to show for all that death.
“Somehow I thought you’d be taller,” Aline said.
“Funny. I thought the same about you.”
They both laughed, as if they were twins. Except that Grendel never knew what to do with Sunny Jim, that wraith of a man. Their son under his arm, straining to run, the father refusing to set him free. It’s not you, it’s this, he said to his boy. All this. When the war is over, as soon as it’s done, I’ll let you go.
Sunny Jim turned the envelope over in his hand, eyed the stain running along its back. The folded paper inside pushing lines into its skin. As if Grendel Jones always knew it would come to this, the day they met.
“Why didn’t you ever fight?” Grendel said.
“I didn’t believe in it.”
“No. Just this war.”
“Well, believe it. Because where you’re going? It’s going to get worse.”
He knew that. He could feel it sometimes, in the dark. The front’s gigantic edge, its claws, rusty and broken, tearing up the hide of the world. He had heard how it was along the highway from Wilkes-Barre to Scranton. Seen the debris in the Susquehanna. Tatters of clothes. A pair of eyeglasses. There were days that the river had changed color—bright orange, luminous purple—and he had thought of his boy and Merry, alone in the family house, almost two hundred miles upriver. The front howling behind the horizon to the south. And then the Big One coming in. When they were children, he remembered, his sister had told him this was coming as they stood on the ragged edge of a field. Watched the wind fall across the tall, dead grass, bright yellow under angry gray clouds. A desiccated red barn shaking on its beams. This earth, this sky, will come for us, she said, it’ll get tired of us and come. And what comes after will be beautiful, even if we’re not allowed to see it.
No wonder it was happening now, Sunny Jim thought. After what we had done.
* * *
THEY WERE IN THE back of a delivery truck on the road out of Harrisburg with four other people, all down to what they could carry. The highway was broken by craters, clotted with the wrecked exoskeletons of military equipment. The remains of some hard miles. They passed a checkpoint after the sign for the Super 8, where the driver sweet-talked the soldiers into letting them go without inspection. They had nothing the soldiers wanted anyway. Across the river, they could see the lights from the army camp at Marysville, hear the murmur of a bullhorn across the water. The soldiers having to pacify themselves as much as the people they conquered. Soon the truck was swerving along the river valley’s side. The hills to the right steep and jutting, a radio tower’s single signal on one summit. The river to the left, slipping past dark clusters of islands. Betraying nothing of its strength. The southbound lane teemed with a long, unquiet line of people swinging torches and whipping animals. The chatter of confused children. In the places where the highway seemed to hang over the water, they could see up the valley, the refugees’ lights drawing a chain across the foot of the slope. They were taking everything they could and going. The truck with Sunny Jim and Reverend Bauxite in it the only thing heading north. If either of them had glanced outside, they could have seen the looks. The shock and pity, the jokes and prayers. Why would anyone want to go up there?
They curved onto a long ramp over the water, where the islands fell away, the valley opened out, and the river swelled wide. It was cutting the hill in half, tearing the wound wide. The ridge was ragged with the river’s assault, fell to the shore at steep angles. Covered in foliage, leaning trees. Rocks shaking loose from the bleeding wall. The highway, the giant Clarks Ferry Bridge, a toy amid all this violence. Once it had shot across the gap over the water, the river unperturbed around its monumental pilings. It would have pulled it all down in time. But the war got to it first, took down the bridge’s middle third. The western end then fell all on its own, leaving the eastern end a jagged pier, its length ending in crumbling concrete, bubbled asphalt. Metal beams jutting below. The rubble from the explosion was gone. The river had made its bed with it, and the birds had returned already to the bridge’s underside, built nests in the blackened steel. Their cries bouncing off the water’s sleek surface. All the while, the river dug deeper. Bringing the mountain to its knees.
Up on the bridge, people waited on the pavement. Pairs, groups of three, of five, with small livestock muttering in cages. A dozen children wandering back and forth from the ramp to the bridge’s edge, trying to make friends. They had a game with a ball of rags tied together until an errant throw sent it into the water. They watched the river take it away from them. Then started playing cards, rules involving slapping, punches in the arm. Evening brought fog that hung in suspense, threatening to become rain. Lanterns and small fires flared. Low voices. Someone humming. They huddled together for warmth as the river seemed to widen in the fading light, gather water far beyond what the Juniata brought in tribute less than a mile away. As if the whole world were water below them, rising into the air. They could smell it, taste it. The earthy musk of plants and soil, curdled by dead fish.
Near the end of the bridge, a woman had hung a tarp across plastic pipes to try to stay dry, started a tiny fire that writhed in a trash can lid. Two people joined her, beckoned others to join them, until there were eight of them standing in a semicircle, just out of the rain. Hands extended and open over the heat. The woman who started the fire giving everyone a faint smile, hesitant greetings. Looking for what is good in us.
“Do I know you?” a man in a top hat said to Sunny Jim.
“I don’t think so. I’m not from here.”
“No, no, I think I know you.”
“I’m sorry,” Sunny Jim said, “but I don’t recognize you.”
The man in the top hat peered at Sunny Jim, as if waiting for him to say something. He was a con artist, a professional, thought he read something in Sunny Jim’s face. A vulnerability. A fragile man, he thought, who had much and was unaccustomed to losing. Pegging Sunny Jim all wrong.
“Then it’s my turn to apologize,” he said. “I thought you were someone else.”
He was, Reverend Bauxite thought, not so long ago. A man tied to the planet by a thread of happiness and rage, his wife and child his only anchor. Now both were far away, beyond his sight, and his belief in them was all that was keeping him here. Reverend Bauxite began a small prayer, that his friend have the strength, the forbearance, not to lose his faith. Be granted a sign, a small thing, to tell him to hang on. He thought again of Talia, in the days before the war started. Picking at a hangnail in the pink wingback chair in his office, lips drawn tight with the concentration of it.
“You know,” she had said, “I believe we are all given at least one moment in our lives when the world reveals itself to us, in all its workings. We comprehend everything at once, and then forget almost all of it a second later, because none of us could hold it all in our heads. But we are changed afterward,” shaking her head, “in a most profound way.”
“Has this ever happened to you?” Reverend Bauxite had said.
“Oh, yes.” Eyes sliding upward to meet his. “Hundreds of times.”
For Reverend Bauxite, it had happened only once, not long after the death of his father, though he could not say that was what had caused it. Nothing he could see or comprehend had caused it. He was in the backyard of the house he had rented, and the yard ended at a line of trees, the fringe of a thick wood. The clouds above an exercise in stillness against a deep blue. Then the sunlight changed, and the clouds began to move, twisting against a graying sky. The wind made him look up, and he saw, for an instant, a movement among the trees. They were parting, in concert, as though they were a door opening, and though there was darkness beyond, he knew something was stepping through. Then the door closed, and the trees thrashed in the gathering wind as trees do, and it began to rain. He did not understand what he had seen, but he stopped being a bricklayer and instead became a priest. Read for orders under an Episcopalian minister with a shock of curly white hair, uneven glasses. Was ordained by the bishop in a ceremony by the Susquehanna’s shores, with no walls to protect him. As if to warn him that he would have to build his church like that, wherever he went.
He had such conviction in his first years of ministry. Spoke as if through a golden horn, his voice wide and strong, enough to fill the old church he took up in Harrisburg. He had found it half-abandoned, stripped of all that was not stone. He hauled in metal chairs, a card table for an altar. His confidence his pulpit. Put out a sign on the church step for services every morning. Attracted first just the curious, but soon the devout. People who swayed when they sang. Eyes closed or lifted to the roof. Hands out, raised, clapping. His first extended families, the withering elders sitting on the aisle, the married ones standing without shifting from foot to foot. Backs straight when they knelt. The younger ones chasing the kids along the walls where the stations of the cross used to be. It’s disrespectful for them to play in church, a clucking parishioner said. Not if you think God has a sense of humor, Reverend Bauxite said, and loves his children. He said it so fast, so gentle, so firm. Still filled with what he had seen before the storm.
He marveled at that now. The vision had to fade with time, he knew that. Knew, too, that when it did, the real work of his faith could begin, to believe when he could not see. But he had not counted on the war testing him so much. Making him ask the questions that he had seen kill the faith in others. The war could kill the faith in him, too, if he was not strong or careful enough. He could feel it fluttering within him sometimes, a bird in a cage of knives. Its own blood on its face and wings. Let me go. He shook his head. No.
His hands over the fire were warm in the mist, and he squinted into the coals. Finished the prayer for Sunny Jim, but refused to pray for himself. Did not believe in doing himself any kindnesses.
Down the bridge, under the bent green sign for Halifax, a man in a brown jacket fiddled with the latch on a wooden viola case. It was his cousin’s. Her talent had been obvious early. She watched a guitar player from her stroller, her fingers shadowing the shapes his made. A song within a week of getting her first instrument. By the age of eleven she played it for hours a day, with an emotional surety that most adults never feel. She could get it within minutes of starting to play, a direct line to somewhere else.
The war came upon her without warning. The man found her apartment in Hagerstown unblemished, but her not in it. Her viola lying on the kitchen table, next to a cutting board, a half-peeled onion. The case on the floor beneath it. He took the viola, left the rest, and headed north, where she must have gone, he thought. There was nothing left in the south for her. The cities burned, the families scattered. Better to go where it was cooler now, even if the rain never seemed to stop.
He kept the viola no more than a few feet from him. It was the thing he valued most in this world, as if he was tied to one end of its strings, his cousin to the other. He had this idea that he was going to find her and give it to her. Already worked out what he would say: You forgot something. Holding the case out. She would laugh, almost without a doubt. Know better than to ask where the rest of the family was. Push him like she did when they were kids, and their parents, their aunts and uncles, their blind grandfather, were all there. But he had not found her yet.
He unlatched the case and took the viola out. The fog settled on the surface, made the wood sweat. He tightened the hair on the bow a little too much, drew it across the damp strings. The metal, the horsehair, did not like the weather and scratched in protest. But he had heard all the songs she had played in the house a hundred thousand times. Just before dinner, on weekend mornings. Some very late nights, when he came stumbling home trying not to be too drunk. The tunes were humming in his head now, and her with them. He could almost get them into his fingers. The sound he made was unclean, but the melodies were simple and clear enough. He kept the viola out for longer than he should have, but he could not help himself. Every note brought her back to him.
* * *
I MET THE MAN with the viola first, after he had left the Carthage, after Towanda. I was in my third house since Charleston by then, for we are always moving now. I saw him coming through the cloudy window of the kitchen, lit two candles, and put them on the sill so he would know someone was there, for all the houses around me were dark, everyone else gone. I fed him three eggs, boiled in water with a little salt. A little rice. Made him some tea, a few ancient bags that I strained the flavor from, sweetened with a spoon of honey. He leaned back in a rickety chair, took off his shoes, and put his legs up on the wooden table. So happy to rest them. He was the first person to tell me about Reverend Bauxite, a little about Sunny Jim. About the ship. How it was a sanctuary, a temporary shelter. Their camp on the road to Canterbury, their villa in the hills during the plague months. The place where they celebrated their survival. For him, it lasted until Towanda, and then left him at the edge of the storm. He knew so little, but it was enough for me to begin, to find everyone else—everyone I could—so that we might not be lost to you. For things are ending now, ending as none of us thought they could. But I have the people I met, the things they told me. I know them all. I have not seen the viola player since he left my house, cannot remember his face. But in an instant, I can recall his speech, its languid meter, half-chuckles for punctuation. His voice, what he said, remains, and it is here, all of those voices are here, in what I am telling you. If in the beginning there was the word, then perhaps, with humility at the smallness of our powers, in words a small part of us can return.
* * *
THE DARKNESS WAS ALMOST complete when a sound came over the water. A long note from a horn, steady and strong. Turning upward at the end, asking a question. The note rolled along the valley, over the broken bridge, through the wound in the ridge. Then it came through the fog, a hallucination of a ship, a drawing of one, done by an artist slipping into schizophrenia. Every plank a different color, bearing pieces of language, fractured words, the edges of letters skittering across its wooden skin. A dozen half-remembered monikers fighting to baptize the ship, but the real name, Carthage, painted in bright yellow letters. Sunny Jim would learn later how the wood was taken—from a dozen ships on the verge of sinking, from buildings before the flames. The two smokestacks stolen from two different factories before they collapsed on themselves. The paddle wheel from the last mill in Pennsylvania. The faces and animals carved along the rails, framing portholes, running all the way up the three masts, were the likenesses of living creatures the ship’s crew had seen, seen and then climbed up the side of the ship with paint and chisels to replicate. The Carthage was a vessel, all right, a book with half its pages torn out, but the ones left were enough to piece together a history, a history always returning. The spark of a new city amid the ruins of an old one. They say you could see it in the warp of the floorboards, hear it in the creaking stairs. Smell it in the fat burning from the lanterns in the hallway, the grease from the galley. Feel it in the way the boat rocked on the waves. You could not take a step, open your eyes, without knowing how it all was falling, and rising, too.
The horn sounded again, chased by a sweeping cacophony of bells. A string of lanterns fired all along the rails, and the people on the Clarks Ferry Bridge crowded at the southern edge above them to watch it, shout, wave it down. Take us. Take us from this place. The boat seemed to swell as it approached, bulge at the bow. Too big to be there. The crew, dozens of them, swarmed the deck, busy with ropes and hooks. Long ladders. The people on the bridge jumped and yelled, panicking their animals in their cages, as the boat disappeared beneath the bridge and they saw only the tops of the naked masts passing by, the mouths of the stacks. Then, with a single shout, the crew threw their ropes from the rails, the hooks skittering and sparking across the bridge’s pavement. Finding cracks, warps, bends. The ropes all went taut and the ship shuddered, groaned to a stop. Moved back into the gap until the deck was there, thirty feet below. Then the crew brought ladders to cross the distance, ladders and spiral staircases, up which four officers climbed, smiling.
As one, the people on the bridge ran for them, shouting entreaties, throwing coins. The officers put up their hands, began to reassure them. There is enough room for everyone. But the people had lost too much already to believe them. Reverend Bauxite put his shoulders to use, cut through the pressing crowd, holding the envelope over his head, fluttering it in his hand. The second mate, with an old trumpet horn for an ear, cocked her apparatus at the rattling paper. Pointed at Bauxite, beckoned with one finger. In the commotion around her, she closed her eyes, ran the envelope under her nose. Was transported, for a full seven seconds, to the printing press she’d run before the war. When everything depended on the arrangement of type, so that letters flowed together into words without impediment, arms joining arms, legs wrapping around legs, until no limbs were left behind, and a sentence could save the world.
She moved the letter from her nose with a flourish, stepped aside with a bow. “Captain Mendoza will want to see you,” she said. “Before you even take a room. She knew Aline once, too, you know.”
“Aline?” Sunny Jim said. “My wife? Have you seen her?”
“You’re her husband?” the second mate said. “No, I haven’t seen her.” You poor man, she thought. She will never leave you.
* * *
ON THE DECK OF the Carthage, the crew were lighting more lanterns and candles. Animals everywhere, horses, camels. A cow and three ponies suspended in the air in harnesses, screaming. A troop of monkeys occupying the bow. A llama, easing itself into slumber even as the humans clambered around it, shouting, hauling trunks across the wood. The roofs of the forecastle and the pilothouse were lined with brass birdcages, swaying. The birds in them a parade of luminous plumage, cracked talons. Ceding the evening to the bats swarming around the ship’s masts. Below decks, a buzz of voices, as though a band was tuning. Fervent applause. Shouting, too loud, carrying the promise of violence. But Sunny Jim asked only where the captain was, followed the gesturing hands to the forecastle. Knocked on a door studded with dried guano.
“This is Aline’s husband. I have a letter—”
The door opened and the captain’s head peered out.
“You?” she said. “You’re Aline’s husband?”
“Yes I am.”
Was, my friend, she wanted to say, but then saw it was no use.
The room much darker than they expected, crowded with furniture. A giant oak wardrobe. A stack of wooden chairs. Bolts of floral-print fabric leaning against a dresser missing all its knobs but one. A Victrola playing “Mal Hombre.” A red carpet, woven medallions at the threshold. Paths forking away from them, forking again. All around a forest of curls and snarls. “It’s a Sufi motif,” Captain Mendoza was saying. “The paths to becoming one with Allah. The moment it happens, here.” Her foot on the other end of the carpet. “This joining with Allah is also the point where the self is destroyed. It’s like that with mystics everywhere, I think. Transcendence and dissolution, always the same thing.”
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, Reverend Bauxite thought, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.
The captain laughed, and Sunny Jim heard a familiar thing in it. A tone, a rhythm, shared with Aline.
“I want to thank you for getting us on board,” he said.
“It was the least I could do,” the captain said. “I held Aline in the highest regard, sir. How far are you going?”
“The road to Lisle. Our boy’s there. Mine and Aline’s.”
“I see.” She gave him and Reverend Bauxite a look, a trace of his wife in it again.
“She never mentioned you,” Sunny Jim said.
“It was before your time.” She laughed again, held out her hand. His fingers curled around hers, the grip dry and tight. Like vines that take years to choke a tree. Harder than she expected, to look at him. And the skins of their palms shared an understanding of whom they both had touched. A memory lying along the nerves, though the cells on the surface had been shed and replaced years ago.
The captain grew up in a trailer hitched to a pink pickup under a stand of scrappy maples at the end of a dirt road rutted with tire tracks. It was hard for her to remember it. In the winter, the rain pattered on the metal above her head, like flying dogs landing on the roof. Long rides across dark country to get to her aunt’s house to learn reading and math. In the summer, the trailer walls sweated mildew. Mosquitoes at the screen, pumping their knees. They could smell the blood. Her father worked afternoons in a slanting shack that used to be the ticket booth for a drive-in, fixing tillers, small tractors. The stretch of asphalt in front of the tattered screen strewn with rusting machines being dismembered for parts. Her mother washed the floors of a clinic, around the feet of exhausted doctors who worked with fraying bandages, syringes used for years. They boiled the needles, dipped them in alcohol. Hoped for the best. Her father stood outside the trailer, chewing on the end of a stick. One of these days, he said, we’ll get this pickup moving again. Find some gas and haul our life out of here. But when she left, at the age of sixteen, the truck was still there.
Between her last walk down the tire tracks and when she met Aline, she remembered even less, though it all changed her, she knew. A cigarette shared on a porch hanging over the river, it must have been in Owego. Somewhere else, Johnson City maybe, she spied a man through a broken window, sitting on a bed, naked but for a paper party hat, playing a purple plastic guitar. A woman in a green robe sitting behind him, back against the wall, drinking coffee from a yellow cup, her other hand tapping out the beat on her knee. Then there was a damp sleeping bag in a cave on the lip of Cayuga Lake, the graffiti from two hundred years of teenagers in love all around her. The railroad tracks running beneath, smelling of greased metal. A black dog barking on the ridge. By the time she met Aline, the miles were in her muscles. Her eyes not quite as wide, her head clearer.
She was working in a diner in Deposit when Aline walked in. A jacket sewn for a high school sports team long ago, blue and yellow fading together toward a gray pallor. Patches of pink bands sewn into it. Half her head shaved. Light brown work boots. All of her clothes at least fifty years old, smelling like a closet, though the woman beneath did not. They were in Binghamton when the Susquehanna swelled its banks in a heavy monsoon, put half the city underwater up to the second floor. A man fished from his bedroom on Seminary Avenue. Women with canoes full of ripening fruit rowed among the submerged houses, shouting their prices across the flood. They saw shoes in the water, ankles. The tips of fingers. The city lost five bridges, entire neighborhoods, never got them back. The places where Ukrainians had eaten pierogi in the social hall before the services in the domed wooden church. Where small mob bosses had counted earnings in downtown houses while boys dared each other to walk the sewer pipes suspended over the river like rusting tightropes. Where the bus from New York City had pulled in at three in the morning, and people got on, bound for Ithaca, only an hour away. Why they needed to get there by four, why it could not have waited until six, until nine, was a mystery. It was Binghamton, and there had been shooting sprees, yes, and a sweeping rush through the city as the manufacturing left it, of boards going up over windows, buildings emptied and staying that way. But there had been bakeries, too: Roma, Vestal, cannoli and bread. Arches over the roads into the city, built by unions, fraternal organizations. A night in a club downtown back when there was still snow, and a band full of high-school kids trying to pass for older played loud, ragged reggae to a throbbing throng that shouted for more, until the next group came on and hit them even harder, and kept going after the young players were dead on their feet, loading their gear into their cars, still learning. It was all under the mud now, under the stones. But on a quiet night, when the water and sky and hills between were all moving toward the same color, and we stood on the banks under black branches and waded into the current, we could feel the water talking about it all, the words moving around us, running up through our bones, until the city was in us, the city and all that had come before, even though it was almost gone. Almost.
The captain fell into awe of the river then. It was the nerve of the land, carrying the memory of the city along with the ghosts of the hundreds of miles of white pines on the Pennsylvania hills. The thick oaks and maples of upstate New York. A forest as big as a country, darkness on its floor at noon. They said they logged it for trade, ship masts and two-by-fours. But you could see the fear behind what they did, the way the giants drank the light while the houses quivered beneath them. They had to kill it, all of it, to chase the fear away, but it would never go. She could still feel it on the roads in the hills, in the towns where people went to bed early, left her standing on the sidewalk in the sudden dark. In the towns, they were afraid, but they could not tell her why. On the river, at least she knew.
“I want to stay on this river forever,” Captain Mendoza had said, though she was not a captain yet, would not be for years. They were lying side by side on the deck of a barge, slipping by the last hills of New York, away from Waverly, into Athens, Pennsylvania. A candle weaving a scarf of smoke to keep the insects away. The spring flood silent beneath them. Aline got up on her elbows, looked to the banks. The trees up to their waists on the submerged shore. The river eating the houses beyond.
“Well, then you have a choice to make,” Aline said, “because I’m leaving.” She did not have to say how much she hated it. The captain could see how she stayed away from the rail. The kids on the barge tied yellow ropes to the stern and jumped in, rode the current on those tethers. Swinging wide on the river’s turns, arms and legs brushing by trout under the surface. Aline never put her feet in the water. As if she knew then, the captain thought, had a premonition that she would be down there for good someday, and just wanted to stay in the air for now.
The Carthage was fifteen miles south of Harrisburg when Captain Mendoza got the news about the Market Street Bridge and who had been on it. She lowered anchor, did not leave her quarters for two days. Closed the windows and lay in bed, staring at the warped timbers across the ceiling. The afternoon air thickening around her. At night the rain rolled across the deck and the birds huddled in their swinging cages. Below, in the vaudeville theater she had salvaged from an old movie house, the evening was beginning. Voices rising, the slap of cards, the rolling of dice. The clicks and shouts of six young men playing Russian roulette with a two-hundred-year-old gun. Bottles breaking across the floor. A scattering of music, struggling to coalesce but coming apart again in a pile of dying notes and cantankerous percussion. Two fights beginning in hoarse names and ending with splintering furniture. It was chaos down there, unless the band prevailed, and it would end as every night did since the war had gotten so bad: with people hurt, ruined shoes, a photograph destroyed, a pocketknife that belonged to a grandfather gambled away and lost. The sanctuary that the boat gave unable to altogether shut out the country beyond and what it had become. But that night all the noise seemed to come together into wails and moans, swooping sobs. As if they had pulled Aline out of the water, hoisted her up through the floor, laid her on a table. Let the cry go out that she was gone. Hacked apart the floorboards to fashion her coffin, fixed it with screws and twine. Bore her over their heads, passed her from hand to hand. The body rocking on a sea of palms as the band played and the people sang, she is dead, she is dead, and dropped to their knees in submission to their grief, opened their lungs and shouted at the sky. The end of their misery lay in another country, a place they did not want to go yet. Not if it meant leaving her behind.
No. No, no. The truth is, I do not know what the captain was thinking. I never met her, never got to talk to her. She was gone, and the Carthage, too, before I ever knew they existed. But you must allow me these lies. The violence I do to all of them, when I put holes in their skulls to show you the thoughts in their heads. It is the only way I know how to bring them back for you—them, the boat, the cities, everything—and let them into your head. Maybe then we can live again, in you. As though it were the last day, and we were all risen from the dead.
Copyright © 2012 by Brian Francis Slattery