The Flood

You're capturing something elusive, something
you're not always sure of, and you're trying to
capture it before it vanishes.

—Philip Pearlstein

During a lull in the rain, I took a walk to the marsh, just to be outside, and found a bedraggled little dog running circles around a man who lay amidst a clutter of tide debris. He wore an overcoat, shoes without socks, and refused help or money before I'd offered. When he asked my name I remembered my parents and answered don't have one, then asked about the dog: why was he so small; why didn't he bark? But the man said the runt wasn't his, was just another kind of lie I hadn't learned to tell yet. He told me he didn't have a name either, that he stayed too busy to engage in such vanity. Then he turned away, sighing, and fell back to sleep, and the rain resumed falling, even harder than before.
So I ran home, followed by that secret little dog.
By the time I arrived, the water had risen into the kitchen; my parents were lolling on the floor, splashing each other and trying to teach my little sister how to swim. In the living room my brother sat naked in water up to his chin and watched our brand-new color TV, which seemed to work fine, even half-submerged: Another sort of miracle. The house smelled of turkey and mashed potatoes, fresh-brewed coffee and apple pie.
Then my parents were doing the dead man's float, holding their breath so long that my sister was quietly starting to cry. In another room the phone was ringing, so I waded down the hallway to answer, hoping it would fall silent before I arrived.
So much rain this year, she tells us, fish have started surfacing from their deep pools underground, up through caves and coral and soil, into the puddles that are flooding our gardens. When I wade through the back yard to the alley to dump the garbage, fish thrash and splash me and sometimes cause me to drop the garbage bag, which they ravenously rip to shreds. Soon we may be swimming off our back porch. And then the rains will stop, as they always do in winter, and we will plant our garden, fertilized this year by the fish which will have died and rotted—unless they are able to slip back down into their underground grottoes. Pelicans and anhinga have landed in our oak trees.
Our son comes home early from school these days, sits on the back porch and fishes until evening falls, when he should be doing his homework. He always catches something, which we fillet and fry up for dinner, though we don't much like the taste. Sometimes he lays fresh-caught fish out on the wall that surrounds our garden, or he tosses them up into the branches of our trees and sits silently on the wall there, waiting for the birds. He waits there as the sun sets while we bustle around the kitchen, cooking dinner or listening to the weather, to the news, or to old songs that still make us feel like children, pleased by simple harmonies, proud to know each word.
Do you feel the deep breaths that move through your body, she wonders, do you know who sings at the back of your head? My memory is faulty, but my hopes are eternal, like the foxes that set out at dusk. They dance and forage around our neighborhood while we're shut up inside eating dinner. And when I say dance, I mean it, she says: have you ever seen them jump for a bird which has swooped low to the ground, and catch it?
She tells us she understands music much more deeply since that afternoon she fell off the high dive while no one was looking, hit her head on a kick board in the water and went down. Now she knows harmony and dissonance as well as she knows how to chew her food, and she knows all the words of jazz standards and even the most obscure operas, in their original languages. She says she doesn't even like that kind of music and starts to sing in other voices, back and forth, in harmony.
We sat at the end of a concrete pier that stretched out into the St. Johns River and watched black skimmers circle, bottom half of their beaks zipping through the water, making a soft hiss, like gentle rain. In the grasses behind us, tall white birds stood still.
Years later we paddled kayaks out to a sand bar slung between two small islands where we could wade, watch birds, and gather shells. The water slapped from both directions, sending claps of small waves up into mist and breeze. We sat in the water there, rocking back and forth. Plovers flew near, rose up and fell into the waves, catching tiny food. A bedraggled pelican flew by, stabbing the swells but catching only water. High above, vultures and magnificent frigate birds moved in slow circles, almost out of sight.
So I lie back in the water and look up at the sky and wonder what I would say to you if we met today as strangers living one of the many different lives we could so easily have entered, many times, with one of our other loves. I think you'd live in Colorado or California, and I might have ended up anywhere. We'd both be married, and I think we'd both have children—so our own children wouldn't exist, except as other people. Maybe we'd both be spending a few nights here on the beach on our way somewhere else. There'd be a summer storm and our sons, who would be about the same age, would rent boards and surf the larger-than-usual waves while we stood at shore's edge and watched. You'd have a pair of binoculars I'd borrow to watch them. I think I'd notice your eyes. Maybe your husband would be sleeping off a bad mood and maybe my beautiful wife would be having her fingernails painted again. Maybe I'd ask you to body surf with me, which you would demurely decline, since you wouldn't swim well; and maybe it would start raining hard enough to make the sand dance and our sons hoot with pleasure.
I see them out there now, floating out beyond the swells on their rented surfboards, laughing and yelling back and forth to each other with the same vivid energy that connected us, so many years ago. They don't even know each other's names.
Or maybe your son meets my daughter somewhere else, in another city where she's living for the summer while she studies anthropology, art history, simple food and love. Maybe he asks her to take a walk with him. It's beautiful there, walking at dusk beside that river, watching swallows scribble and dance.
Maybe they talk about their parents as they walk or maybe they don't say anything at all.
In that life we'll meet each other at their wedding; in that other life that's when I'll ask you to dance.
—for Colleen
The Flood
Michael Hettich

The Flood

Michael Hettich

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