Dwight Livingstone Curtis
Two men, both shirtless, each holding an axe, and one, a gnarled saw, waded through waist-deep water toward a two-story house that emerged, strained, heavy with each waterlogged board and each rusted nail that pinned it together, from the soggy earth. When they reached the doorway of the house, the first man laid his hand flat against the front door. With effort, he pressed against the damp wood, and from the exposed upper hinge a shriek, the spoiled union of iron and air, echoed shrilly down an empty street, piercing the soft surfaces of damp wood and bouncing freely off the dark, swirling surface of the river.
The water had been rising, now, for seven days. On the first morning, without a sound, the cattle in the fields had begun to walk away from the river. For three days they walked, slowly, heavily, as cows do, each purposeful step crumpling the grass and pressing down the wet soil beneath it, leaving an ever-growing half moon of pockmarked earth behind. The townspeople noticed the cows before they noticed the rising water.
On the fourth day, the mill reversed direction. The water, thick and dark, had risen above the axle of the wooden wheel, and when the swirling surface water overpowered the quiet channel below, the wheel slowed, and creaked, and began to turn again in reverse, snapping gears and mutilating machinery. Then, when the sullen current licked a final splash up over the churning woodwork, it groaned to a stop, and everything was quiet.
On the fifth day, the doctor could be seen piling armloads of damp clothing into the back of an old horse cart. Next to the cart, his wife and her four daughters, all barefoot and muddy up to their ankles, stared upward without speaking. They watched for rain, but there was none to be seen, only clouds, and crows. Most flew west, with the current, but some could be seen returning, circling and watching the river as it sucked up the land and pulled anxiously at the lowest boards of houses. When the doctor’s wife drove his horse toward the road, the women clinging tightly to the dripping cargo, the wheels of the cart left grooves as deep as a man’s hand in the black ground.
On the sixth day the water turned salty. Now, bits of splintered board could be seen drifting down the river, passing through the sunken windows of riverside sheds and picking up thick tangles of weeds. The water, now spilling through doorways and puddling in dirty circles on the floors of empty houses, had washed away the grooves of a dozen horse carts, and twenty miles west, along the river, hungry donkeys dragged hungry families through thick mud, toward desperate hopes of dry inns and warm meals. The cattle, which had been migrating steadily, ignored by humans, for almost a week, huddled on a hill two miles from the muddy bank of the river, chewing mouthfuls of muddy grass and blinking dumbly at the flat sky.
Single-story houses, which had once housed small families, looms, and coal stoves, now lilted against the current, until one by one they collapsed gently into the murky water. Only the drunks and their whores still walked among the heavy, stained structures, checking bedrooms for gold and kitchens for wine. In the daytime, they huddled together on the side of the hill above town, where the cows had once stood, and where small piles of scrap wood now sat in piles, some of it lashed together in futile rafts, most of it loose and damp. They drank from bottles and crossed themselves under the grey sky. Half of the town lay underwater; the other half, void of life, leaned quietly under its damp empty weight.
The two men, holding their tools high above their heads, waded through the doorway and into a small room, filled to the mantle with water, and from the mantle to the ceiling with thick, wet air. The surface of a table drifted slowly on the water, propelled toward the far wall by the rippling progress of the two bodies. When one of the men swung the head of his axe down onto a corner of the table, it dipped effortlessly down into the black water, lifting another dripping leg into the air. The leg looked grey in the grey light, and it was lined with veins of green. The man shifted his weight, lifting an obscured foot to brace against the corner of the table, and when he pulled the axe from the wood it bobbed back up into the air, sending ripples bouncing in patterns off the walls and the bare chests.
Against the far wall the men stepped carefully up a wooden staircase. As they rose out of the water, green weeds clung to the belt loops of dark brown pants, and dark dripping leather of cracked boots curled down to expose white ankles streaked with straight black hair. Their heads disappeared, followed by the tops of their pants, their ankles, the soles of their cracked boots, and then they were gone, creaking across the floor above the empty room.
In the single room, into which the men emerged part by part, a single body sat as still as petrified wood on a wooden chair. It was the body of an old man, with small tufts of white hair growing from his sagging ears, clothed in a dirty white shirt and brown linen trousers. Its eyes were half open, as still as marbles stuck in mud, and the men ignored it as they moved about the room, testing the softness of the wood of a small bureau, now a square dining table, now a painted cradle, now a small end table, on which a Bible lay, coverless. The wood was damp but hard, and they took to it with the axes, snapping the legs from the larger table and splintering the flat boards and hitting at the bureau with overhand swings until it lay crushed in a pile on the floor. They took apart the crib with their hands, and this wood, protected by the white paint, made loud snapping noises as they bent and broke its spokes. When all but the end table lay in a pile by one wall, behind the seated body, the men lay down their axes and stood, breathing heavily, by the only window in the room. Through it, they watched the river move quietly through town. Crows stood on the branches of trees, and now and then one or two would take flight and drift over the black water to another tree to stand on another branch. There were no sounds for a quarter of an hour, during which the river rose imperceptibly.
Both men had coils of wet yellow twine in each of their pockets. They knotted the wood together in bundles, and when the third bundle was taut one of the men moved over to the small end table. The Bible felt damp and heavy. Inside, the inked letters were swollen. He touched the top of the table again, and then motioned for the other man, who brought his axe and took to it with dull swings. The man with the Bible carried it over to the seated body. The floor in front of the chair was dry, and he placed the heavy book at a reverent angle in front of the feet. Each man then took two bundles, wedging the tools between the twine and the splintered boards, and they stepped carefully back down the stairwell, disappearing part by part, leaving behind, among piles of splinters and small dirty puddles, only the still body in its chair and the wet book.
They had not known that he was alive. The following morning his eyes drifted down to gaze at the Bible. It had swollen slightly since the previous afternoon when the men had come into the house to take the furniture for futile rafts. During the night, one of the puddles left in the center of the room by the men had trickled across the floorboards, snaking past sawdust deposits until it touched up against one corner of the book, where it was quickly absorbed by the already damp pages. Now, in the grey light leaking through the window—although it had been cloudy for weeks, there was a certain heightened color in the room when the sun ought to have been shining in—he watched the book grow.
His name was Levi. Like the cattle, he had known about the flood, sensed it, before the young and active townspeople. It had been coming for months, perhaps always, and when his bones began to crystallize he knew that this was how it would end, still, petrified, in the rising water.
At first it was his fingers. As a boy he had thrown stones and flicked insects, as all boys do, and as a young man he had run nervous fingertips over the laces of corsets. But when he grew older his bones hardened and began to scrape against one another, until his wife and sister began to feed him, dragging a spoon roughly over the coarse white hair on his chin to catch the droplets of broth that ran down from his lips.
When he stopped eating, after his knees froze and his fingers closed permanently around the arms of his chair, his jaw, too, grew coarse and chipped inside, and his last few words had sent sounds like crunching gravel tearing through his skull.
And, as his bones rusted like the hinges of old doors he began to notice the moistness in the air, the dampening of noises in their wooden house and the sheen on his sister’s forehead as she pleaded with him to eat.
‘I do not need food,’ he had thought to himself; ‘hunger will not kill me, as it will them.’ He had waited patiently as the air thickened in his room, and when the cattle left he was the happiest he had been in weeks. They would all leave, now, he thought, and when his wife came into his room, weeping, followed later by his sister, to talk in loud sobs about the flood, he had been happy that he could not speak, and hoped that they would not draw out their departure.
When the water finally crossed their hearth the women had already packed their bundles of moldy clothing into the broken oxcart and foraged what dry foods and fresh water remained in the house and the looted storerooms of their neighbors. He wished for the women to leave, to forget to kiss the damp skin of his forehead and not to promise him that they would return with a boat and food, not to try to carry his rigid body somewhere dryer to die. He had pretended to be dead, closing his eyes and slowing his breathing for hours until the small purple snakes that always clouded his vision had filled the room. And then his wife had come upstairs to kiss him guiltily and hold his hand, weeping quietly, while his vision cleared.
They had left dry food in jars beside his chair. The first time that men came upstairs, he had pretended to be dead, and they took all of the food in wet brown sacks that they tied shut with twine and carried over their shoulders. That was when the men still wore shirts, when some decent women still lingered, when it was still a sinful thing to go into another man’s bedroom, to stare at a rigid body and be glad it was not one’s own. He did not need to eat; he felt his end at hand, and with each tired beat of his heart, his crystalline body clenched tighter at the tunnels of watery blood that snaked through it. The day after the men came for the last of the furniture, blue mold began to creep up the walls.
For two days he sat still, awake, no longer sleeping or blinking. Each hour brought new growth to the walls, which smelled sour, and though Levi could not turn his head to look out the window, he heard and smelled the flood. There were fish now, in the room below him, giant ocean fish, with stiff fins on their backs and thick red gills. As they swam, he listened to the ripples echo off the walls in the ever shrinking cavern between the water and the ceiling. ‘There are only a few inches of air left beneath me,’ he told himself, and through the window he could smell sea turtles and hear the dipping flight of pelicans.
The nails that held the walls together smelled like rust. With the first effort he had made since moving to the chair, and with what he knew would be the final shift of bone on bone in his crystalline body, he let his head drop slightly until he was staring straight at the swollen book on the floor in front of him. As his vertebrae shifted, they made the sound of stones colliding, and he blinked with the sharp pain of friction. Then, still again, he felt the last of his unfixed joints fuse into place, as brittle now as a sprung and forgotten bear trap, crimson with rust, no longer metal, ancient latticed powder of no use to nature.
‘I will not drown, either,’ he told himself, for he felt, too, that he had ceased to breathe. The only motion in the room, in which dilated time made a puppet-show of mold and rust, was the growth of the blue streaks on the walls, and the steady crowning of the book that sat wet on the wet floor.
What lasted? Bone would outlive muscle. What of fingernails? He stared at the book. How long would language persevere, and when would it be forgotten? He thought of human bodies, and then of other animals, and then plants. Wood was no better than flesh or bone, or tusk, or tooth. No living thing would outlast stone; nothing that had been nourished by sunlight or that had coursed with blood would be any more than dust when cool pebbles still lay quietly in piles on mountaintops. Was life itself the fatal flaw, the dooming touch? What was bone, or muscle?
‘God has grown tired of men,’ Levi thought, as he listened to the barnacles bite slowly and tightly into the floorboards of his kitchen.
Later, he noticed the first black swirl trickle out of the round pile of pages, into the puddle that surrounded it. Slowly, the ink was sucked out of the book, and the water darkened, then the wood beneath it. ‘If I could move,’ thought Levi, ‘I would taste that water.’ The water was dark, and the pages, which had swollen and melted together, had grown lighter, inkless, like a slab of butter.
At a certain moment, consciousness itself crystallized into mere architecture. When the water finally rose carefully over the last step, it entered the room slowly, in a thin, rounded film. It rolled over exposed nails and joined in quick asymmetrical embraces with the puddles that stood in ruts, and when it arrived at the old book the clean mound dissolved without resistance in creamy swirls. Levi, too, succumbed quickly to the rising water, and his powdered bones and paper skin swirled about the room, mere pigments, coloring the water as it overtook the blue mold and sucked up the splinters.
The following morning nothing could be seen of the town. Forty miles west, in a similar town, distant cousins and flushed innkeepers ate candlelit dinners on sturdy tables, while their cattle, with a sudden sense of purpose, blinked dumbly at the hills that rose up against the grey horizon.