Winner of the Doris Betts Prize, 2004

“Rushing Water, Damage Done”

By Brenda Witchger

“Rushing Water, Damage Done.” That is the headline in the newspaper. Well, I guess so. These people have no feel for drama, I can see that, right off. But the picture is good. It goes across two whole columns and shows trees laying over like a pile of pick-up sticks. The water has peeled the bark back like you do a green onion. They look naked, or like they’ve been turned inside out.

That picture was taken right out back, within sight of our house. And it’s giving me the chance of a lifetime. Just by luck of having it happen here. I feel burnished by a glancing fame and jittery with excitement. It is my time to shine for my aunts.

Not that I had a thing in the world to do with Mr. Hennessey’s dam busting and making such a horrible mess. I’m just in the right place at the right time.

Mama says be mindful that this is a tragedy for Mr. Hennessey. The water came near to taking his house, with him and Mrs. Hennessey sleeping inside. As it was, it flattened his shed, leaving farm equipment scattered willy-nilly over the pasture. And a bunch of his cows had been drowned. Mrs. Hennessey told Mama they did a dreadful lot of bleating and bawling. And that’s not to mention his livestock pond ending up over in the next county somewheres.
Daddy said that’s what he got for being such a hard-headed S.O.B. when everybody told him that dam wouldn’t hold on that site.

I didn’t hear the rest cause when Daddy said S.O.B., Mama said, “Lacy, cover your ears.”

I like to unwind a story. I like people to hold each tidbit and feel the shape and weight of it. And if parts are missing, I supply them myself. But, this takes time and I’m not surrounded by the most patient people in the world. So mostly I’m just quiet.

But not today. The aunts are driving all the way from Rock Mills, so I know they are already primed with curiosity. I have rehearsed how I’ll begin. “I sat straight up in my bed and right away thought it was a bomb,” I will tell the aunts. “I was sure it was a war. Oh, it was scary.”

I do remember waking up and hearing Mama and Daddy moving around in the kitchen when it was still dark outside, hearing the low rumble of their conversation. I heard the news at the breakfast table. But I will not let bald facts get in the way of a good story.

I need my aunts to notice me. I have no idea why. They are not nice women. But they are important to Daddy, so I work to win them. I try my hardest when they are around, even though it is exhausting and I don’t usually get much for my trouble.

The aunts are tired and cranky when they arrive in Uncle Burton’s smoke-spewing Cadillac. They need lunch before they hike back to the dam site.

“Bet it is a damn sight, ain’t it, Tom?” Aunt Mattie asks my Daddy. “The law, what was that man thinking? He ain’t got the brains God gave a billy goat.”

“Reckon not,” Daddy says. “It’s a mess. You just can’t believe how much fast water can tear things up.”

“Well, that’s a fact,” Aunt Lou says. “Anything coming at you fast can.”

I am trying my stories out on my cousin Sandy on the walk over. I take note of where I seem to lose her and punch it up with sound effects.

Our cousin Roy is along, as he always is when the aunts visit. Aunt Mattie called his Mama and had her send him down. The aunts won’t go there, since that would mean they’d have to see Aunt Dorothy, who they all detest. They still blame her for living through the wreck that killed their baby brother, Uncle Arthur. He’s been dead for more than five years now.

Roy is 8, a year younger than me and Sandy. He may have to repeat third grade. I overheard Mama telling Daddy. Aunt Dorothy has taken to drink since Uncle Arthur was killed. Mama is concerned and wonders if they should intervene.

I had to look up intervene and it took forever because of the tricky spelling. But I’m wondering what all could come of it. I surely don’t want Roy living in our house.

He is skipping ahead now, jumping in puddles and ruining his tennis shoes, which are practically new. He has a stick he uses to poke into the ground and flick mud at Sandy and me. We try our best to ignore him and are irritated when we hear the aunts chuckling about it — at our expense.

“That boy’s a little rounder,” Aunt Tillie says and I am disgusted to recognize admiration in her voice.

“He’s Arthur all over again,” Aunt Lou coos.

“Can I tell you something?” I ask Sandy, my voice low.

“Sure,” Sandy shrugs.

“I hate Roy,” I say, speaking each word slowly and with feeling.

“He’s a pain,” Sandy says, but without conviction. She doesn’t live here and only sees him once in a great while.

We crest a hill and the damage done is laid out before us. As we pick our way gingerly down, stopping to examine the de-barked trees and scored earth, I begin my recitation. I’ve got it down pretty good and thought it was going well until Aunt Mattie turns to me and says, “You’re a regular magpie chatterbox today, ain’t you?”

Mama puts an arm around my shoulders and makes a little laugh that’s for me. “Lacy is just beguiled by calamity. Always has been.” She looks down at me and I see in her eyes she is afraid for me.

I try to pick up again and go from aunt to aunt, searching for an opening. Aunt Lou starts to make a few listening noises as I’m telling her about how things looked when we came over at daybreak that morning, but on about her third uh-huh her head snaps up as Aunt Mattie calls “Would you look at that little monkey?”

Roy is hanging upside down by his legs from a felled tree trunk, making Tarzan noises and flailing his arms.

I go and sit down on a rock that has cut a trough through the clay as the water shoved it along. The aunts are all clucking over Roy. Sandy plops down beside me

“Give it up” she tells me. “You can’t compete with a dead Daddy.”

I sigh. “I guess not.” I look up to notice a curl of earth jutting out above our heads. The water has gone in under it and carved out a wave in the earth. A stubborn finger of land with a few sprigs of grass stands out against the sky. It looks like a sculpture and is beautiful. But it won’t last. I point it out to Sandy.

“Huh,” she says. “How you suppose that got like that?”

“Oh,” I tell her. “You just would not believe what rushing water can do.”


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